Mark’s Gospel on Cultivating Discernment

In Mark’s Gospel, the temple in Jerusalem becomes the object of God’s judgment.  The temple apparatus had become a system of oppression and exploitation rather than a means of blessing for God’s people and for the nations.

Jesus wants his disciples to discern the temple’s true condition and Mark wants his readers to do the same.

On his way to Jerusalem to violently perform God’s judgment in the temple, Jesus curses a fig tree (Mark 11:12-14).  The cursed and withered tree is to be the interpretive lens through which Jesus’ disciples—and Mark’s readers—understand God’s opinion of the temple.  It’s a corrupt institution and its overpowering stature and beauty mask its rotten soul.

Mark makes sure that his readers closely associate the cursed fig tree and the judged temple.

He follows Jesus’ action in the temple with this in vv. 20-21:

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

So Mark frames Jesus’ temple action with the cursed fig tree.

But there’s one more very subtle detail.  Mark notes that Peter remembers Jesus cursing the fig tree, and this is a tip-off to readers that they need to keep it in mind as they read the rest of the Gospel.  They, too, must remember this perspective on the temple.

Readers should recall this passage when a disciple says something very similar to Peter’s words regarding the fig tree.  Mark 13 opens this way:

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

The “look, Teacher!” of 13:1 should call to mind the “Rabbi, look!” of 11:21.  Alert readers will know that this disciple’s perspective needs correction.  He’s overawed by the temple’s immediately impressive grandeur.

If you’ve ever been to Jerusalem, you’ll know that this is easy to do.  The temple platform and its massive stones are simply astonishing.

Mark, however, wants his readers to gain discernment, to see through immediate appearances to the temple’s inner reality.

The system of oppression that prevents people from truly encountering God and experiencing shalom is protected by a shiny and impressive outer façade.  It’s so lovely, it can’t be a devouring monster, an evil and oppressive beast!  Look how impressive it is, how efficiently it is run!  God must be pleased with it!

Readers of Mark—and churches that read Mark together—must cultivate this discernment, too, learning to see through immediate appearances to the reality of their own tendencies toward corruption.

According to Mark, the stakes are high: If buildings and institutions become systems of oppression, they abide under God’s curse.

4 thoughts on “Mark’s Gospel on Cultivating Discernment

  1. greekUnorthodox

    I’ve been doing some thinking the last couple days on this fig tree in light of the repetitive cycle which played out in Israel’s history – that of obedience bringing life and disobedience bringing death/exile. Much like Adam being proto-Israel, this fig tree seems to me to be descriptive of the same problem. It was created to produce and when it doesn’t, it dies.

    Israel was created for a purpose, to image God into the rest of the world, and when they don’t strive towards that purpose, they chose death/exile over life. Of course this tree couldn’t make a choice so it was probably more descriptive of their current condition than of their opportunities, but it still seems to apply to God’s people on the whole in addition to the temple, no? I mean, yes, it was specifically framing the Temple, but that was just a microcosm of Israel, right?

    1. timgombis

      Yes, and it draws upon a number of similar images from the OT prophets. The Lord cultivates Israel and prepares them for fruitfulness, but when he comes to find good fruit, he only finds injustice. This performed parable by Jesus runs along those lines–pointing to the temple, Israel’s religious leaders, and ultimately, Israel.

  2. S Wu

    Great post, Tim. Indeed there are systemic evils in our society and institutions, including Christian ones. The temple system in Jesus’ days seemed to be corrupt. Much to ponder for us today when it comes to our own “temples” and “systems”.

    1. timgombis

      Exactly, S.! For those of us in the States, our evangelical mega-churches have replaced the shiny and very impressive temple. Overpoweringly beautiful but potentially cursed by God because they’ve stopped being agents of God’s flourishing.

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