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Bible Commentaries
Mark 11

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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The Temple and the Vineyard (11:1-13:37)

Mark’s story, as we have seen, was so arranged as to reach its climax in the event of Good Friday. This event had been foreshadowed from the earliest preaching of John. It had been more and more clearly anticipated by Jesus ever since he had started from Caesarea Philippi on the journey to Jerusalem. He had sought to prepare his disciples for it, by word and work, and in this preparation he had sought to show them the end of their journey as well as his. As they had pressed closer and closer to this goal, the teaching had become more outspoken (Mark 10:33-34). The forecast of coming events was filled with the awesome and the ominous, but with auspicious accents as well, for the salvation of the world would also be accomplished. Both auspicious and ominous counterpoints are to be detected in the music which follows.

Throughout the Passion Story the references to places carry profound overtones. The scene now is Jerusalem, the city of "our father David" (Mark 11:10), the place which Jews considered the navel of the earth. Throughout the generations, Israel’s hopes had been magnetized by God’s promises that all peoples would come to Mount Zion. This spot was dearest of all to God, to Israel, and therefore to the coming Messiah. God had chosen to dwell here; therefore, in loyalty to him, his servants could not forget this city "set on a hill" (see Psalms 137:5-6).

The city’s glory was the Temple, where God had chosen to meet his people. Here the faithful brought their burdens of guilt and their caravans of gifts. Here they heard the trumpet sound and lifted up their anthems. Here they awaited news of the promised redemption (Luke 1:5-23; Luke 2:22-52). No true Messiah would ignore this holiest of institutions. It is significant therefore that as soon as Jesus entered the city he "went into the temple" (Mark 11:11). Each entrance into city or Temple was the entrance of the true King and Shepherd, for whom the very gates must lift up their heads (Psalms 24:7). Each exit conveyed a sense of the departure of God’s glory, a symbol of Israel’s rejection of its Lord, or of the Lord’s rejection of his people. Each word spoken in the Temple, or each weighty gesture, conveyed its portentous meanings. This Messiah could find no place to abide, either in the city or in the Temple, but must spend his evenings outside the walls in Bethany (Mark 11:12), a terrible condemnation in itself. But neither could he stay away from his house if he were to fulfill God’s assignment. So the reader of this story must detect the power of his Messiahship by discerning his movements toward the Temple, inside it, and away from it.

Verses 1-10

Hosannas at the Gate (11:1-10)

The first entrance of the King could not have been a minor or casual event, for he is indeed the King of glory (see Psalms 24, 29, 48, 50). Such an entrance required preparation, and these opening verses indicate how his followers obeyed the Lord’s instructions. He would himself furnish everything — the procession, the singers, the mount on which he would ride — all these were provided from outside the city itself. The mount, an untested and unshod colt, must represent the wholly new kind of power which would characterize his reign. The entourage was composed of anonymous and unknown pilgrims. Both the colt and the singers would proclaim the mysterious beatitude, "the meek . . . shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5), and the fulfillment of the prophet’s expectation:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!

Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass (Zechariah 9:9; compare Isaiah 62:11).

The arrival of such a king, whose victory would be won by meekness, was an occasion when even the cobblestones would shout in praise (Luke 19:40). For those who had lips to sing, this was indeed the coming of the Messiah in glory. This picture should be set in the same gallery as the pictures of the Messiah’s advent in a manger (Luke 2) and of his advent in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21-22). In it we should hear the hosannas shouted by the humble whenever they welcome the Messiah who came "with healing in his wings" (see Malachi 4:2).

Verses 11-26

Curses on the Tree (11:11-26)

The story now changes its key from the auspicious to the ominous, for the Savior who comes in the name of the Lord must exercise judgment in that name. We should read this next episode as one intended to show the sharpest contrast to the hallelujahs. We should also read it as a single episode which paints in prophetic black the conflict between the Messiah and his own house (Mark 11:17). A single episode? How can that be? What was the connection between the cleansing of the Temple and the blasting of the tree? The connection was there, and Mark saw it, because he placed the Temple scene in the middle of the fig tree scene.

A single motif pervades the double scene: the Messiah’s judgment on a sinful Israel. The fig tree had produced no fruit for a hungry Messiah; his house had been turned into a cave of brigands. Therefore he whom God had anointed as the Lord of both the tree and the house blasted the one and scourged the other (vss. 14-16). Both acts were signs of his presence in power. He loved Israel and was hated by Israel; therefore his love must be clothed in sternness.

There are difficulties, to be sure, with this interpretation of the text. Why is the fruit tree cursed when it is not the season for figs? (vs. 13). To this conundrum there is no convincing answer. But when we recall how often Israel was spoken of as a tree, how frequently prophets used parables to describe her fruitlessness (for example, Luke 13:6-9), we can perhaps explain this reference to the season as simply a statement of fact. Israel had borne no fruit to give its owner (the same point is made in Mark 12:2-3).

Difficulties appear also in the story of the Temple. Whom did he drive out and why? What did he expect to accomplish? Was he acting as an exorcist of demons, or as a reformer of financial practices? The text invites many diverse interpretations, some of which attack all ecclesiastical institutions and ignore the reality of Christ’s love for the Temple (John 2:17). Our reading of the text should do full justice to its prophetic symbolism. For example, the robbery includes not only the frauds practiced by the moneychangers against the worshipers but also the stealing of this house from God. Moreover, the thefts from men were not limited to the Temple precincts, as Jeremiah knew, but included the dog-eat-dog practices outside the Temple by men who then took part in the worship (Jeremiah 7:8-15). In any case, the Messiah’s work in the Temple was a prophetic sign of God’s wrath, in accordance with God’s desire to make his house a place of prayer for all nations. It had been promised that God would bring foreigners and would gather the outcasts to rejoice in the benefits of the Temple (Isaiah 56:6-8). It was this promise which Jesus fulfilled and which the priests repudiated, so that this episode becomes an epitome of the Messiah’s whole career (John 1:11).

The concluding remarks of Jesus (vss. 22-26) are even more of a riddle. Do they belong here or elsewhere? Perhaps these proverbs concerning faith, prayer, and forgiveness should be separated completely from this context. Yet Mark thought that they belonged here, and if we are correct in our understanding of the symbolism, they do belong. If the fig tree signifies Israel’s fruitlessness, then it also signifies that earthly power which seemed most insuperable to Jesus’ followers and the greatest source of their despair. If we had asked Mark’s readers what, in their judgment, was the greatest single obstacle to the triumph of the gospel, many of them would have answered: the implacable hostility of the leaders of the Roman synagogues. Considering this hostility, what was the likelihood that the mission of the Church could succeed? To them "faith in God" meant confidence that "this mountain" (the total weight of Israel’s resistance) would be "cast into the sea." For them to pray was to ask God for the triumph of his gospel over this enmity. Could such a prayer be answered? Jesus’ word (supported by his action) assured the readers that this prayer would be answered, provided it voiced not their vengeance but their forgiveness. They must forgive as he had forgiven (Luke 23:34). They must have as deep a desire for Israel’s salvation as he had demonstrated. When we view the whole episode in this fashion, it conveys much the same message as Paul’s letter to the same church (Romans 9-11). Moreover, it was a preview of Jesus’ own struggle in Gethsemane and on Calvary, where his faith was set in monumental opposition to the massive sins of the world, and where by prayer and forgiveness he received the victory for which he prayed (Mark 14:32-42; Mark 15:16-39).

A Parable Against the Tenants (11:27-12:12)

Israel had been called by God to be a light to the nations. The Holy City had been designed to be a magnet to draw the tribes of men. The Temple had been established as God’s dwelling and therefore the sanctuary for all peoples (Mark 11:17). The priests, scribes, and elders (vs. 27) had been appointed to welcome foreigners and outcasts in the name of the Lord (Isaiah 56:6-8). The Messiah had been sent to bring to realization all these things. But was he the Messiah? That was the key to everything else. The guardians of Israel were duty-bound to raise the question, "Who gave you this authority . . . ?" (vs. 28). Why did Jesus not give a direct answer? We do not know. Perhaps it was because recognition of his authority must come from God and therefore from the heart. As usual he turned the burden of proof upon the questioners. What about John? Or rather, what about his baptism? Obviously Jesus knew that the authority for this baptism was from heaven (Mark 9:13). But did the Temple leaders know it? They pled agnostic neutrality (vs. 33). Actually they had denied God’s initiative in John’s work of preparing a highway in the desert (Mark 1:2-3).

It is an interesting lesson in the varieties of language to examine the subsequent story as a precisely parallel teaching (though in vastly different idiom). The paragraph we have just read is a pronouncement story, a narrative whose purpose is to give a trenchant pronouncement. The next paragraph is a parable, an imaginative story about something that happened once upon a time. Yet Jesus addressed the same company, and the thrust of his message was much the same. For they had rejected his authority and in rejecting him had rejected the God who sent him. Actually in its form the story is closer to allegory than to parable, for almost every detail has an algebraic equivalent. The people of God are now represented by the vineyard, a usage quite common in Scripture. God is the man who had planted this vineyard (Mark 12:1) and had given it all it needed to produce a harvest. The tenants are those stewards to whom God had entrusted the vineyard’s care and who had accepted the task of producing the harvest — in other words, the leaders of Israel. But the benefits had not come to God; they had been embezzled by his appointed leaders. They no longer recognized the owner of Israel, nor did they concede that Israel belonged to him. When God sent messengers (his servants the prophets) to collect his share of the harvest, the tenants had skeptically asked, "By what authority . . . ?" (Mark 11:28). With the sending at last of the Son, they argued that with him out of the way there would be no further challenge to their position. They would become in fact the sole owners. So they killed him (Jesus, of course) and cast him out of the vineyard (of this, the Crucifixion outside the city wall was a symbol). This is the story of the vineyard, but it parallels the debate with the priests (Mark 11:27-33), the cleansing of the Temple, and the blasting of the fig tree. In fact, it is a sharply etched summary of the story of Jesus, yes, even of the story of Israel from beginning to end.

"What will the owner of the vineyard do?" He will not touch the vineyard itself. His people are holy. Has God rejected them? No (Romans 11:1). The love of God for them will force him to save them from their leaders. One set of tenants will be destroyed. in spite of the obvious fact that they had succeeded in their declaration of independence. Had they not killed the Son? Yes, but his death will be reversed by his resurrection. Or, in the language of the Psalm, which substitutes the picture of a temple for that of a vineyard, God will choose as the cornerstone a block of stone which the masons had thrown away (Psalms 118:22-23; 1 Peter 2:7). Every story in this section thus became for Christian readers a tiny etching of the longer Passion Story which would follow.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Mark 11". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/mark-11.html.
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