It’s Palm Sunday. Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem for the last time on a donkey. There is much acclaim. For people to spread their cloaks on the road and spread leafy branches out in front of Jesus showed a great deal of respect. This was an acknowledgement of Jesus’ importance – a king of some type. Then there were shouts of praise with the word Hosanna … meaning ‘Save now’. Clearly some had high expectations concerning Jesus.
But in just a few days the shouts would be very different (‘Crucify him, crucify him’). Why???
· Was deliverance from the oppression of Rome seen as the big problem to be solved, well ahead of a person’s own sinfulness and brokenness?!
· Is the idea of salvation fine until the point where it demands something of us!?
· Higher ethical standards was a bit of a stretch!
· Was it easier in the end to just fall in behind the leaders who were set on preserving the status quo – didn’t that just make for a quieter life!?
Isn’t that just why Jesus had to die – we human beings tend to just want to please ourselves! We cheer others on when it suits, just like the crowd did on Palm Sunday for Jesus, but when it doesn’t suit we might tend to ‘crucify’ them … well just shun them maybe.
When the salvation plans of Jesus toward the transformation of the human heart could no longer be quelled, his opponents accelerated their evil plot. Today there would no doubt be a negative social media campaign, back then … just continual conversations about how Jesus must be dispensed with. This included the manipulations of tragically weak characters like Judas, Pilate and Herod. How so many others were so influenced by this horrific campaign, shows how fickle human thinking can be.
To the annoyance of some, Jesus DID NOT approach Jerusalem as a conquering warrior on a white horse, but as a ‘prince of peace’ on a humble donkey. Here was a ‘servant king’. This indeed fulfilled a prophecy from Zechariah, yet this was largely unrecognised. Jesus came to deal with the problems that lay deep within our souls. “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech.9:9b). Then in the next verse – “he shall command peace to the nations” (9:10b).
When Jesus entered Jerusalem he went to the temple. When he looked around he sensed that all was not right. This disturbed Jesus. No doubt this was still on his mind the next morning when he came upon a fig tree. Jesus was hungry (as he may have been spiritually hungry the previous night at the temple). There were leaves on this fig tree which gave the impression of life. Yet this gave false hope as there was absolutely no sign of fruit to be found. Disappointment set in. Jesus, disturbed by this whole concept of fruitlessness, put a little curse on that fig tree.
It is curious that there is this remark that, “it was not the season for figs” (v.13b)! This might have been seen as an excuse, even a reality that explained the lack of figs. Still, was there any real evidence that fruit would ever arrive on this tree! What we have here is a symbolic act or lived out parable – an act (from Jesus) designed to point to something else much bigger. Some point of displeasure. A comparison is being invited between the fruitless fig tree and the fruitless temple. We read in verse 14, that “his disciples heard it”. They knew it was something for them to reflect on the meaning of. Jesus was making the point that fruitlessness in the present indicated continuing fruitlessness in the future!! The work of God was being depleted; and people are so set in their ways (that this is unlikely to change)!
What did Jesus see at the temple that so disturbed him (verses 15-17)?? Injustice and thoughtlessness!!
(1) There was injustice flowing through the selling of the sacrificial animals – people were being ripped off through inflated prices … their desire to present sacrifices for their sins was being taken advantage of. “Doves” were specifically mentioned … why … because “doves” were the much less expensive option for the poor – the offence reaching its height when it affected the least able to pay. Then there were the “money-changers”, who when changing foreign currencies into the local currency used to purchase the sacrifices, were also taking advantage of people.
(2) Most of this noisy market activity was occurring in the outer area of the temple complex, which also happened to be the only area in which non-Jews could pray. These were Gentiles who had been attracted to the Jewish religion, but were not (because of their perceived uncleanness) allowed greater access to the temple. No wonder Jesus brought to mind and quoted from the great (and largely ignored) prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah (in verse 17).
At what should have been the spiritual heart of the community, Jesus only experienced disappointment. Clearly his strong words and dramatic actions were aimed at those who had let this happen, and those who were profiting from it. The previous temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians, when according to Jeremiah the people had forsaken God for other pursuits. This second temple would be destroyed by the Romans in another 40 years. In any case, the time of the temple system and physical sacrifices was coming to an end. Jesus was about to change everything! As we shall reflect on continually over Easter, our spirituality and salvation would now centre solely around our relationship with Jesus.
When the disciples (with Jesus) returned past the fig tree, they saw it withered away and dead (verse 20). Peter remarked on this. What was the lesson?! In response to the coming of Jesus, in response to God’s love in sending Jesus, there needed to be a NEW FRUITFULNESS!! This fruitfulness will be based on a real faith in God, such faith that believes mountains can be moved. This fruitfulness will be sourced in prayer, such that we will have no doubt that God is working through us. Through faith and prayer … outstanding possibilities exist. There may be circumstances around us that seem as immovable as mountains, however they are NOT beyond the capacities of faith and prayer. And we should also note verse 25 – this fruitfulness will be fuelled by a heart attitude of forgiveness – forgiving those who have offended against us and against God … so that there will be no ill-feeling that stands as a barrier against our fruitfulness.
FAITH, PRAYER & FORGIVENESS lead to the sort of fruitfulness God requires of us.
This is clearly NOT what had been motivating spirituality of recent days. This is typified in what Jesus experienced at the temple. And when Jesus strongly pointed all this out, the plot against him intensified. There was a major campaign to change the community view from ‘Hosanna’ toward ‘Crucify Him’.
What is FRUITFULNESS??
The great apostle Paul described fruitfulness (or the ‘fruit of the Spirit’) in nine words: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-3). This indicates a sort of discipline (or discipleship) that embraces these characteristics as basic foundations for interpersonal living. From these basic characteristics (or marks of our character) our more specific activities of fruitfulness follow.
As opposed to the displeasure Jesus felt at the temple, good fruit is any attitude, word or action that pleases God [Mark Greene, p.35]. This may be everyday seemingly small actions or more major public efforts. Cleaning up a park or river, offering a glass of water to a thirsty person, an animal properly cared for, or a normally invisible person given a thank-you. Seemingly small actions could have considerable outcomes for good (in God’s hands). Then there is patient listening, sharing some God-inspired perspectives, bringing gentle introductions to Jesus, sharing testimonies of faith, speaking prayers for the ‘shalom’ of our community, dealing gracefully with opposition, or, perhaps publicly witnessing to faith in the waters of baptism. A little more demanding is confronting injustice, challenging violence and abuse, welcoming strangers, and caring for the vulnerable.
Being fruitful means seeking ways to either affirm or change i.e. affirm what is already good, or change what could be better. God is glorified as his character, priorities, goodness and power are expressed through our everyday lives.
Fruitfulness, to be our norm, will require ongoing humility, consistent repentance, and a complete openness to the Spirit of God. Fruitfulness is promoted as we imagine Jesus beside us as we go through our daily lives. We then more and more naturally see things through Jesus’ eyes, and more and more possibilities for fruitfulness emerge. As we have our eyes are ears more attuned, what else might Jesus point out to us? Love is alert to possibilities. We also see Jesus in others, and develop a more hospitable spirit – through which can grow a new appreciation of trust and safety (that had previously and tragically been lost). God activates his plans of blessing people through us.
The goal of our fruitfulness is to bring glory to God – that others might come to know and appreciate God for all of who he really is [Mark Greene p.36-7]. This is what the temple that Jesus encountered was NOT doing. In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus saying, “My father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples (John 15:8).