While listening to an excellent sermon on this passage, I was reminded again that Christianity’s belief in Jesus as the Messiah, who embodies and completes God’s purposes for the nation of Israel, is an all-inclusive humanism. You recall the story: the day after the “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, Jesus, being hungry, curses a fig tree, whose leaves had indicated the possibility of many fruits but offered none. The next day, Jesus returns to the temple, and in the gentile court, now filled with sellers of sacrificial animals and money changers, he overturns tables, brings to a halt the sacrificial system in at least one corner of the temple court, and justifies his action by quoting a passage from Isaiah 56:7: “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for al peoples.” With this citation, Jesus takes up the ancient prophet’s reminder that God welcomes the Gentile foreigner who wants to draw near to God (56:6). Moreover, Jesus’s listeners would surely know that this passage is nestled within a larger context of God’s admonition that not sacrifice but “maintaining justice,” and “doing what is right” pleases the God of Israel (56:1).
Jesus had been to the temple the evening before to check it out. Hence, on two levels, we can assume that his action is premeditated and symbolic. On the narrative level, we know that a theologically motivated storyteller such as Mark has purposefully mentioned that Jesus had already inspected the temple the night before. Therefore his subsequent actions, which culminate in violently interrupting the customary temple activities the next day because the temple had been turned into a “den of robbers,” indicate that he had at least a night to plan this action. On a theological level, the symbolism indicates Jesus’ status as a prophet. After all, prophets traditionally call Israel back to the nation’s intended purpose of being a model of God’s intended humanity to the world. Whenever Israel deviates from this course and begins to abandon God and adopt the inhumane customs of other societies, prophets show up to warn Israel by means of highly symbolic actions. Jesus curses the fig tree, and the tree withers and dies. It is important that we read about the drying up of the tree, whose foliage had promised fruit but delivered none, after the temple action. Why? Because the entire episode is meant to prepare the reader for Jesus’s claim that he himself is the climax of God’s covenant with Israel.
So here is the Christian humanist interpretation of this passage: at least one plausible way of interpreting the Old Testament is that God elected a people to begin in concrete, historical and relational manner his universal paideia, his education of humanity toward godlikeness. God, in other words, aimed at the unity of the human race, both with him and with one another. On this reading, Israel, even as the chosen people set apart by God, were on a mission to bring unity and humaneness to all nations. Many passages in Isaiah testify to this purpose (eg. Isaiah 49:6 “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth”), and Jesus’s citation of Isaiah 56:6-7 and Jeremiah 7:11 in the synoptic accounts of his temple action indicate his overall motivation: Israel’s sacrificial system and temple practices had come to obscure God’s intent of drawing all of humanity to him, beyond any ethnic divisions. Especially Jeremiah 7:1 – 8:3, evoked by Jesus, contains a typical prophetic indictment of Israel’s propensity to turn God’s gracious provision of his presence into boundary lines against others. Instead of becoming a blessing to the nations and drawing them toward God, Israel, more often than not, used God’s election to prop themselves up as fortress of self-righteous piety, eagerly waiting for God to send his Messiah who would confirm their elect status. Thus Jesus’s prophetic anger, upon finding that the Gentile court, the area where non-Israelites could draw near to God, had turned into a warehouse for a sacrificial system that served to justify God’s nation in its own eyes, even while living contrary to his will – in essence, the very accusation Jeremiah levels against the people of his own day.
Now we can also understand the significance of the dried up fig tree. Recall the order of events in the narrative: Jesus encounters a fig tree that is green but bears no fruit. He curses it, and it dries up and dies. He goes to the temple, which is full of religious activity but does not bear the fruit God is hungry for – all of humanity drawing near to the very source of life that created it. The religion of Israel had not become a blessing to the nations, as little as the foliage of the fig-tree had resulted in fruit for the hungry traveller. Hence the tree is destroyed. The same logic applies to the temple. God is in the process of replacing it through Jesus himself, who will be the mediating, priestly, sin-forgiving and restorative presence of God to everyone who wants to come, beyond any racial, ethnic boundaries. In a highly literary culture, it is surely no accident that a “dry tree” is also mentioned in Isaiah 56: “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people;” and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.'” Thus Mark’s narrative conveys the prophetic judgment: the Temple practices of Jesus’s day find no place for the despised Gentile (i.e. the Eunuch), who cannot produce biological life. But in doing so, Israel’s religious rituals are controverting God’s inclusive humanitarian embrace, which had made room for such people. God’s punishment resembles Dante’s Hell: Israel’s central priestly function has already become like a Eunuch, because it no longer produces spiritual life, and so life will be withdrawn from it; like the fig-tree, the temple that was to mediate God’s mercy and presence will wither and die.
This reading makes sense in light of Jesus’s subsequent comments on prayer, following Peter’s amazement that the tree had withered by the power of Jesus’s word. Jesus characterizes believing prayer in this way: “For truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, be taken up and be thrown into the sea, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will happen, it will be to him whatever he says” (23). Surely, only a disregard for the narrative and historical context could lead to the bizarre conclusion that Jesus is here teaching the power of positive thinking, according to which the human mind can manipulate reality (I recall hearing this interpretation by some TV evangelist in the 80s, but I trust that such aberrations no longer dupe anyone). The demonstrative article touto, whoever will say to this mountain, implies that Jesus is pointing at the temple mountain, indicating its destruction; this reading also makes sense in light of the next injunction that prayer should always include forgiving others their sin, so that God may forgive one’s own. The same attitude is demonstrated in the Lord’s prayer. Not only is this desire for restored relations to God and to others the very heart of the temple sacrifice, but also of Jesus’s own ministry, which he demonstrates when He, the one without sin, asks God to forgive those who abuse and kill him. In case we still are not convinced by this reading, Mark gives us a final hint at the crucifixion: at the height of the drama of Jesus’s passion on the cross, it is a Gentile who utters the most important lines. The Roman centurion, who stood facing Jesus, was so impressed by what he saw that he uttered the words, “truly, this man was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39).
So how does all of this amount to a Christian humanist reading? Christian humanism, as we said at the beginning, reads the Old and New Testament writings as a story about the education of humanity toward godlikeness, toward true humanity. God’s aim has been a united human race at peace with one another, motivated in their thinking and action by love of God and love for others. Israel was to be model of this vision but only Christ embodied it perfectly. The church is to be this new humanity, or what the church fathers, drawing on Paul’s theology, often referred to Christianity as a new race, in which God’s vision for peace and unity should become a reality. Recall Ephesians 2:11-22, where Paul reminds his church that the category of Jew and Gentile has been abolished by Christ. In Him, national and racial divisions are overcome, creating “a single new human being” (eis hena kainon anthropon); In Romans 15:8-12, Paul argues similarly that in Jesus is the “hope of all nations,” the promised peace maker from of old. In this truly trans-cultural and trans-ethnic sense, Christians are, again in Paul’s words, engaged in a ministry of reconciliation. Jesus the God-man, the incarnate source of life itself, is now the temple in whom all people meet, and through whom God’s unifying mercy and presence is mediated to all who want to draw near.
In short, Christians and Christian institutions ought to be the very antithesis of exclusionary, sectarian societies but rather their whole purpose is to represent this new humanity, to proclaim the oneness of all human beings in God, and the fulfillment of our true humanity in Christ. Christians and Christian institutions are to be a blessing to the all people, so that the nations recognize that He is, “the desire of the nations.” Yet often enough, Christian institutions are more like the temple scenario Jesus criticized. Instead of serving the nations and being a blessing to them, Christian subcultures can be like fortresses from which Christians defend the truth, take pot-shots at non-Christian thought and culture, and occasionally sally forth to re-conquer lost ground or pull some lost souls inside the supposed safety of our castle. Consonant with this mentality, Christian approaches to culture are often highly defensive and apologetic. Just the other day, I heard from a pupil attending an evangelical high school that a chapel preacher used the analogy of Christians partying on a beautiful beach, while the world swims in shark infested waters. The point of the message was benevolent, of course. The preacher meant to encourage his audience to pull those lost souls from the water of destruction. The premise, however, is dualistic and sectarian. Moreover, the common result is the self-delusional stance that only Christians know how to see clearly, while everyone else is unaware of the actual lay of the cultural land. All too quickly this attitude is extended to questions concerning biblical interpretation, to scientific questions concerning evolution and many other fields of human experience. The problem is that such an approach overlooks the historical cultural influences that produced such a view in the first place. More often than not, Christian supposed isolation from ‘the culture out there’ only results in adopting unconsciously the worst of popular culture within the supposedly all—Christian safety zone. Perhaps partying on the beach is not the best analogy for the Christian life anyway.
I am in no way advocating that Christians should eliminate the boundary Christ himself draws between those who freely respond to his offer of participating in this new humanity through Him, and those who, for whatever reason, choose not to. I am not saying that the church and the world, as it were, are identical. What I am saying, however, is that all human beings are created by God, that all share one common rational, God-oriented make up, so that the church is part of that same human fabric, albeit now drawn into a special participation in the new humanity offered in Christ. My main point is that we tend to stress this discontinuity too much. My concern is that whenever Christians or Christian institutions become overly defensive or whiny about the bad secular world and seek to establish their own Christian subculture, the biblical humanistic vision that marked Christian theology from the beginning is controverted. In Western culture, which has a long formative history through Christianity, an anti-cultural, isolationist stance is particularly tragic. Christopher Dawson, a religious studies scholar, once explained that Western culture is undergoing the crisis of losing touch with the Christian roots from which its most cherished humane values derive. He foresaw (he wrote this in the 1960s) that this development would give rise to two extremes: on the one hand, there would be the secularists who reject any religious values and thus kept undermining their own society; on the other hand, he believed the church could fall into the danger of withdrawing from culture rather than serving, through formative cultural involvement, as a living explanation for the humane vision that informed Western education on account of its Christian roots. Thus in his own way, Dawson reminds us that Christian institutions are for the common good of society, and thus they should act and talk that way. Dawson offers the only convincing reason for Christian education: to keep alive the humane Christian impulse that has had such a positive influence on Western culture. Christian sectarianism and secularism (the doctrinaire exclusion of religion from public reasoning) are equally destructive to society. The question is not, therefore, whether Christian institutions offer a safe haven or an exciting educational experience (though none of these aspects are bad in themselves). Rather, Christian institutions should always ask themselves whether their own passion for God intrinsically includes God’s own desire for a unified humanity. For this reason, Christian culture is potentially wider and more catholic [i.e. holistic and universal] than a secular one (Dawson The Crisis of Western Education, 137).
The author acknowledges his inspirational debt to Andrew Beunk, Pastor of New Westminster Christian Reformed Church, B.C., Canada.