Mark’s portrayal of Jesus and his disciples heading toward Jerusalem is both an important literary device and a theologically rich motif for the plot of the narrative. But the question we should ask is: Why were Jesus and his disciples headed to Jerusalem? The answer highlights once again the theme that Jesus and his disciples were working at cross-purposes.
Of course, the exchange between Jesus and the two brothers, James and John, that we saw in Mark 10, may indicate that at least these two disciples believed Jesus was going to Jerusalem to become the King of Israel, and that they would participate as members of his royal court. However, it does seem likely that the group that followed Jesus for the most part probably thought they were going to Jerusalem as faithful Jews making their annual pilgrimage to David’s city and to the temple to celebrate the Passover.
But, as Mark tells his version of the story, it seems that as Jerusalem comes closer into view, Jesus does not intend to enter the city as the kind of king the disciples hoped for. Nor does he come to Jerusalem simply as a Jewish pilgrim; one among many pilgrims making their way to the holy place.
Indeed, as Jesus and his band step closer to Jerusalem, it begins to become clear that he intends to enter Jerusalem as one sent to challenge the authorities for their religious tyranny, their abusive power, and perhaps mostly for their lack of justice toward the poor and marginalized. In fact, he is so set on taking this action against them that he has accepted that what he will say and do in Jerusalem will lead to his suffering death at their hands.
There is no event more significant in demonstrating Jesus’ intentions than that which takes place in Mark 11, when Jesus arrives at the temple. Of course, anyone familiar with the biblical story knows full well the importance of the temple for Jewish religious life. The temple stood as a beacon for faithful Jews of the first century and as a constant reminder of God’s promise and presence with them.
Yet, the temple was also the seat of political power for the Jewish religious leaders. In being the center of power for the ruling elite of Israel, the temple was a place in which segments of Israel’s population could not enter, and thus, those shutout could not participate in the full religious life of Judaism. Gentiles, women, those suffering from various infirmities, and other marginalized peoples were forbidden from full inclusion and participation.
Many modern readers of the story of Jesus’ actions in the temple interpret the meaning behind what he does in the temple and what he says about the temple as merely a spiritual message. In other words, we like to think that Jesus is confronting the religious establishment on spiritual grounds alone. Moreover, some understand what Jesus does as a refutation of Judaism. But both of these interpretations miss the point of Jesus’ action.
While it is true that there is indeed a spiritual thrust to Jesus’ acts against the temple, that thrust coincides with, and perhaps even follows from what Jesus feels about the political and economic abuses that were taking place there. There was clearly a political and economic structure to the temple that cut out and even abused the poor, while at the same time functioning as a “den of thieves.” But Jesus will have nothing of it. He speaks harshly against what is happening in the temple, and he reminds the hearers of the original intent of the temple to be a place of prayer for all peoples of the world.
Yet, what is particularly interesting about his actions in the temple is the way Mark tells us how these events developed. Jesus goes into the temple late on one day, looks around, and then leaves until he returns the next day, when he begins to overturn the tables. Why does Jesus do this, and why is it important for Mark to tell us these details?
The straightforward answer seems to be that Jesus was determined that his actions against the temple be witnessed by a large crowd; larger than the one that may have been there late on the first day. His actions can thus be defined as symbolic action that was intended not only to challenge the religious-political elite and their abuses, but also to publicly call for an end to the temple practices themselves. It was an action that called for a halt to what was taking place in the temple, and a negation of the belief that God approved of what was taking place in the temple.
If we interpret Jesus’ actions in the framework of his ideas about the rule of God, then we must see his actions against this center of religious and political power in Judaism as a call for the temple practices to be more inclusive. Indeed, by quoting from both the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jesus is stating what the temple is suppose to be, an inclusive and welcoming community, as well as condemning what it has become, a place that not only excludes the poor and marginalized, but that also steals from them.
If segments of the population were being excluded because they were Gentile, female, poor, sick, and ritually unclean, then the temple served not as a place of prayer for all people, but as a place of exclusion, a practice that is clearly at odds with the message of Jesus.
The message of inclusion, which is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching and ministry of justice and liberation, is fundamental to the rule of God. But inclusion can only happen when the walls that divide humanity are torn down so that all God’s people may enter.
Religious, racial, ethnic, gender, and social and economic barriers are only a few that preclude God’s just rule from becoming a reality. Jesus condemned the religious leaders for using their religious power to exclude others from community with God.
Modern followers of Jesus should heed Jesus’ words and should work to create more welcoming communities of faith so that all God’s peoples may find a place of prayer. If we do not, then we are also working at cross-purposes with Jesus.