Misunderstood Savior

Mark 11:1-18                                                                       Palm Sunday

Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                          29 March 2015

From the beginning Jesus Christ was a mystery, especially as the story unfolds in Mark, he is a Mysterious and misunderstood Savior.   This misunderstanding of who He really is becomes painfully clear as he enters Jerusalem in the parade of palm branches.   

Most people do not like to be misunderstood.   When I’m misunderstood, I work really hard to try to fix it, because I want to be understood.   Notice the emphasis, “I myself want people to understand me.”   I want people to respect me and appreciate me.   There’s some ego in it for me.   That’s where I’m different from Christ.   I think Christ wanted people to understand him – for their sake, for their salvation, not because he needed to be appreciated or respected.   He just kept doing right things, hoping people would understand, and even his closest followers often did not.   The crowds certain did not.   On Palm Sunday, they are treating him like a treasured King and then on Good Friday, they are shouting, “Crucify him!”  

Today we are reading beyond the triumphal entry into the Jerusalem to two scenes that demonstrate the tension of this Holy Week:   Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree and his cleansing of the temple.   These are challenging stories, easily misunderstood.  Hear the Gospel of Mark, chapter eleven, verses 1-18.

Mark 11:1-18

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'" 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?" 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" 11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. 12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard it. 15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He was teaching and saying, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers." 18 And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.  (NRSV)

He sends two disciples to secure the colt for him.   Christ often sends people two at a time.   There’s safety in two, and more wisdom and discernment with two.     Before going any further with the story, let me remind you that as you serve the church, consider doing things in twos.   We have two leaders for every team – an elder/leader and a manager/leader.  

 It is interesting to me that in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke – John stands alone as the different Gospel) Jesus sends them, anticipating that they will be questioned about taking the colt or donkey, and saying to them, just say, “The Lord needs it.”   People will misunderstand what you are doing.   Don’t try to give a long explanation.   Just say, “The Lord needs it and will return it.”

Sometimes we have to stir up the courage to ask someone to give something to the Lord.   I’ve been trying to communicate for several weeks that the Lord needs you to give money for a sanctuary.  I do not wish that any should feel undue pressure, but that all should have the joy of giving.   The Lord needs a large space for the worshipping community of Peace.   And the good news is that we have all the money we need and the bad news is that half of it is still in your pockets.   We could have a wonderful Palm Sunday parade from this building to that new one in 2017, if only.

So then the cloaks are thrown over the colt.   Jesus sits.   Cloaks and branches are placed on the path, a sign of honor.  And the people in front and behind Jesus are shouting "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"

Hosanna means, “Save us.”  Word has gotten around – this is One who can save us.   But did they understand how he would save?   Did they?   No, they did not.   They are thinking they need to be saved from the Roman rulers.   They are thinking they need a new earthly King, but this One rules both heaven and earth in a cosmic way that they did not understand.

So He comes into Jerusalem and the crowds celebrate his ability to save.   But then he departs to Bethany, about two miles walk.   He returns again to Jerusalem, and on the way, he is hungry and frustrated that the fig tree, which was not in fruit season, did not have any fruit.   He then curses the tree and we learn when we read later verses than the fig tree withered from the root.   Why would Jesus curse a tree that is not bearing fruit when it is out of fruit season?   Seems a bit unfair, but if He is the Creator, Savior, Spirit of God, then the fruit tree should bear fruit whenever in his presence.   This is not just a great man, a prophet, one who speaks the truth.   He is the Truth and the Life.   In the presence of the Life, fruit should come forth.

Some might want to say after reading this story that Jesus stopped being divine for a moment, and let his temper get the best of him.   But I think a more faithful reading sees Jesus Christ constantly living in the tension faithfully.   And of course there was tension in the early Church, when these Gospels were being pieces together by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The early Christians were trying to remain within Judaism, but eventually had to pull out of the temple. 

Jesus curses a tree and it dies to the core afterwards.   But does Jesus ever curse people?   I searched the NT and never found Christ cursing a human being.   He certainly criticizes and challenges the Pharisees on numerous occasions.   He calls them a brood of vipers, snakes, hypocrites.   He says “Woe to you!” scribes and Pharisees.  But never to a human being does he offer the kind of fatal curse he pronounces on the fig tree.   And Paul tells us in Galatians 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us-- for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree" (Gal 3:13 NRS)  And Paul says in Romans 11 that Israel is cut off, that they might be grafted back onto the tree – in this case, he speaks of an olive tree.   The point in both examples of the trees is that branches that are not fruitful must be cut – but not permanently destroyed.

After the cursing of the fig tree, they enter Jerusalem again and he enters the temple and begins to drive out those who have, in his words, “turned a house of prayer for all nations into a den of robbers.”   It is significant that he says the temple should be for all nations.   Clearly the faith of the Pharisees has become tainted by an exclusive and abusive power.  Jesus is not just condemning the use of a place of prayer for commercial purposes, but he is frustrated that the Jews have not been a light for the nations.   He does not support national and religious exclusivism.   He is appalled when temple or church or nation-state becomes self-serving institutions, taking advantage of others, instead of serving others as God intended.   He’s not attacking the temple but the way it is being run by the leaders of the day.   And the leaders are threatened by him, so they begin to plot to kill him, because the crowds are spell bound.   God-spell has them hooked.  God-spell becomes Gospel.   The Cosmic Christ is changing the world.

 The next day, Jesus goes on to talk to his disciples about the withered tree.  We did not read that part.  Perhaps they were a little troubled by his action as were we.   In the same way that we are troubled whenever we see some natural disaster and say, “Why?”  

There are still many mysteries we cannot understand.   When the disciples are troubled by the mystery of this tree and its curse and withering, Christ tells them to trust in God.   He says, even mountains can be moved by God.  Big mountainous problems can be resolved by God when people live by faith.   For them the big problem was the conflict of the early church still rooted in the temple and those Jews who did not believe Christ was the Messiah.  For us, tensions are different, but we still misunderstand how Christ has come as the Savior of all.   We must keep our souls open to his mysterious and transformative presence which is for ALL people.   As followers of Christ, we too will sometimes be misunderstood and that’s okay.  But it is crucial, he says, that you forgive.  If you have anything against anyone, forgive them, so that you also may be forgiven, he says in the verses that follow ours.  And later in the week, even from the cross, Jesus says, “Father forgive them, for they misunderstand.  They do not know what they are doing.”   Let us pray.

Savior of all, remove the blind spots from our eyes, all the ways that we think we can save ourselves, all the ways that we misunderstand how you are saving the world, all the ways that our personal needs and perspective get in the way of welcoming others whom you love.    Give us eyes to see who you really are and feet to keep moving in your direction.  Take us to a deeper level of understanding this Holy Week and give us the courage to embrace it faithfully and without questioning you, even when you challenge all our assumptions.