The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP's Exegetical Compilation: Mark 11:20-36, Matt 21:18-22

This is part of my Exegetical Compilation project that I’m verrrrrryyyyy slowwwllly posting up, links to which can be found collected here.

Mark 11:20-36; a two-part incident which starts back at Mark 11:12-14. Paralleled, with much less detail, in Matt 21:18-22. GosLuke doesn’t have this incident. The texts either way are stably transmitted in the details relevant for our purposes, except for Mark 11:26 which many manuscripts don’t have but which highlights the connections to Matt 6:13-14.

Mark includes (at verse 22) the imperative command or recommendation, “Have faith of-God”. This is very clear in the Greek (which reads {Echete pistin theou}, with some variation about whether a word equivalent to English “if” is included or not), but doesn’t seem to make sense in English so translations usually read “Have faith in God” or perhaps “from God” instead. But was Mark using unusual grammar here, or transliterating an underlying Aramaic phrase, or writing in a local Greek idiom, or did Jesus actually mean (in Greek or Aramaic) we should have the faith of God? And if so, what might that mean?

This is one of the incidents where Jesus makes very extravagant promises about the certainty of God answering prayers for miraculous results, which have long puzzled readers and theologians because not only does this clearly not happen in practice but it doesn’t even happen for Jesus! – since the Father rejects the Son’s request (soon afterward) in Gethsemane; and Mark reports earlier in GosMark that Jesus was unable to heal many people in Nazareth due to their lack of faith, which may be another example of the Father not granting the request of the Son Himself (since the implication is that Jesus tries but it doesn’t work, thus the explanation for it not working).

Jesus also doesn’t directly explain the purpose of this one destructive miracle (nor do the authors suggest explanations), leaving readers to draw conclusions as best we can. Generally theologians and commentators have agreed that this is an enacted parable against Jerusalem generally (compare with Christ’s lament over Jerusalem during the triumphant entry a couple of days previously); and against the Jewish religious leaders especially, such as Mark shows between the cursing of the tree and it being revealed as withering: when Jesus denounces the Temple leaders as being a den of rebels, using language much harsher than a couple of years previously when driving the moneychangers out of the court of the Gentiles – a policy which later rabbis blamed on the ruling Sadduceean party.

If the withering of the tree is meant to be connected specifically with that particular incident (driving out the moneychangers again), the relevant details would be that Jesus has previously (as reported in GosJohn 2:13-22) given the leaders an opportunity to correct what might arguably have been a well-intentioned convenience (taking over the Court of the Gentiles to allow Jews to more easily buy animals for sacrifice); but they refused to do so, revealing themselves to be a den of rebels blocking people from devotedly worshiping in prayer at the Temple. Who are they keeping out? – not the Jews, for whom the alteration was made (although later rabbis reported that the ruling party was also receiving major profit from this activity), but for the Gentiles! The whole world was, ideally, invited to worship the God of the whole world at the Temple, and a place had been made for them, but that place was being denied by the religious leaders.

This is exactly the context of Christ’s quotation from Isaiah 56: a place is supposed to be made for Gentiles to come to loyally worship YHWH (and even to be given names greater than the sons and daughters); but the shepherds appointed by God over this flock which is supposed to include the Gentiles, are acting like greedy dogs instead, getting drunk on unjust gain! (The call in Isaiah 56 is absolutely total in scope, by the way: not only all “beasts in the field” but “all you beasts in the forest” are called to come to eat.)

Again, the point to Jesus quoting from Jeremiah 7:11 is that the people refuse to do justice with widows, orphans, and foreigners (i.e. pagans), and then who go to the Temple to declare that God has delivered themselves, are about to be in big trouble! (The other sins of Israel in Jeremiah’s day aren’t the sins of Israel in the day of Jesus, which is why He doesn’t complain about them being horrible idolaters and child sacrificers for example.) God refuses (as in Jeremiah 6) to accept their sacrifices, which after all He never even asked for, much less which impress Him, much less which He needs. Consequently, the nation and the city will soon be violently overthrown by pagan armies.

Some people appeal to this miracle (the withering of the tree) as evidence against the eventual salvation of the condemned sinners from their sins. Part of the unspoken imagery is that at this time, before the actual season for figs, there ought to have been small pre-fig fruits in the flowers of the tree; and if none can be found, the flowering is useless and the tree will produce no more fruit (short of a miracle!) so it might as well be slain and rooted up.

Another cultural point worth noting, however, is why Jesus has to go a distance off the road to get to the tree: the undersides of trees were regarded as unclean for many reason, and travelers might sleep under them but only if they didn’t care about keeping kosher. So not only were there laws about keeping trees away from roads lest travelers accidentally defile themselves by, symbolically, walking into and out of an unclean habitation; but also a rabbi also wouldn’t normally go looking for fruit. But Jesus goes looking into the unclean area, which probably represents the court of the Gentiles specifically. How could that area ever provide any fruit (Gentile converts) so long as the chief priests had taken it over so that Gentiles couldn’t worship there?!

There are several reasons why this need not have been regarded as a prophecy of hopeless punishment coming to Israel, though.

1.) The Temple is supposed to be rebuilt, mirroring Jesus’ own resurrection, after it was destroyed, in a fashion acceptable to God. Figuratively the Church itself will be the New Jerusalem and Christ shall be the Temple, but apparently there will be a literally rebuilt Jerusalem and a new temple (for a while anyway) as well. Either way the principle stands, the punishment isn’t hopeless.

2.) The destroyed fruitless tree, presumably slated to be chopped down and burned later, echoes the judgment of Malachi 4. But Malachi says that this judgment (against rebel Jewish religious leaders, per Malachi 3, with comparisons drawn later by John the Baptist) is meant to be remedial and purifying, bringing the rebels back to true righteousness and loyalty to God. So not only is the punishment hopeful, but evidently the salvation will be post-mortem (since the rebel leaders are slated to die by the punishment).

3.) Mark reports the terms for having such miracles granted as withering the fig tree or throwing “this mountain” (apparently Jerusalem) “into the sea” (typologically into the prison of dead rebel spirits): not only must someone have the faith of God (if that cognate for God is accurate), but “Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they shall be [granted] to-you.” In some other places, the all-things for which we as believers are supposed to pray and ask, and which will be granted to believers (and to the Son by the Father, and to the Father by the Son), are sinners saved from their sins.

4.) Jesus immediately continues in verse 25 with a saying the gist of which is also found elsewhere: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also Who is in heaven may forgive you your transgressions.” To which some late manuscripts add verse 26 so the saying parallels GosMatt 6:14-15, “But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father Who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.” Whether or not Jesus added that here (but Mark and/or Peter just didn’t mention it), topically the saying connects back to that incident where Jesus was teaching the Lord’s Prayer, which involves praying for the will of God to be done on earth as it is in the heavens, so it’s understandable why late scribes would put the followup saying here.

But it’s also understandable why later scribes would put the followup warning at verse 26, even if it wasn’t originally in GosMark’s text, because that would anchor out and finish the point to the enacted parable! The leaders of the Temple, whether the Sadducees who had infested the Court of the Gentiles, or the Pharisees whom Jesus had been reaching out to a lot more than He ever did to the Sadducees, weren’t (generally) interested in their enemies being saved from their sins.

At any rate, the overall context suggests what Jesus meant here (and so also elsewhere) about God granting everything to us if we pray with the faith of God (or even faith in God): the “everything” isn’t miraculous granting of prayer requests on every topic, but the granting of saving of all sinners! – even those whose tree has been destroyed and whose mountain has been cast into the sea.

See also the commentary on GosMatt 7:13-12, which features some interesting topical parallels.

As always, As always, members are invited to add further (possibly alternate) commentary and discussion below, including links to discussion of these verses on and off site.

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