‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?18And 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. 19And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. 20In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. 24So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
It is a mistake to see these as separate incidents: Mark's Gospel often contains pairs of incidents that are intended to be interpreted in the light of one another. Mark emphasises two seemingly contradictory elements in his account of the cursing of the fig tree: on the one hand it was Passover week which would have been late March or early April when the fig tree would not have been in fruit. It was not the season for figs. On the other hand Jesus was hungry and having failed to find fruit, cursed the tree to permanent barrenness. This is Mark's way of warning us to treat the event symbolically rather than literally.
If we take the incident literally we see a petulant Jesus abusing his divine power, but taken as a parable the fig tree's failure is a cypher for the temple. The framing fig tree warns us that the temple isn't being cleansed but symbolically destroyed and that, in both cases, the problem is a lack of fruit.
There are some Christians who assume Jesus was objecting to blood sacrifice although this is unlikely. From antiquity human beings knew two basic ways of creating and maintaining relationships with one another - the gift and the meal. How then did they create, maintain or restore good relationships with a divine being? What visible acts could they do to reach an invisible being? Again, they could give a gift or share a meal. In sacrifice as a gift the offerer took a valuable animal or other food and gave it to God by burning it on the altar and the smoke and smell rising upwards symbolized the transition of the gift from earth to heaven.
In sacrifice as a meal the animal was transferred to God by having its blood poured over the altar and the meat was then returned to the offerer as divine food for a sacred feast with God.
Neither is about suffering or substitution.
There may have been an issue with the ambiguity of the temple as both the House of God on earth and the institutional seat of submission to Rome. The temple's ambiguity was, however, far more ancient than any problem with Caiaphas's collusion with Pilate in particular or High Priestly collaboration with Rome in General: it goes back at least a further half a millennium to the time of the Prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 7 God tells Jeremiah to stand in front of the temple and confront those who enter to worship. Confront them about what? About their false sense of security. They seem to take it for granted that God's presence in the temple guarantees the security of Jerusalem and their own security too. Do you think, charges God through Jeremiah, that divine worship excuses you from divine justice and that all God wants is regular attendance at God's temple rather than an equitable distribution of God's justice? Has this house which is called by my name become a den of robbers in your sight? The people's everyday injustice makes them robbers and they think the temple is their safe house. The temple is not the place where robbery occurs but the place the robbers go for refuge. God does not just insist on justice and worship, but on justice over worship. I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies......But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The temple incident involved both an action by Jesus and a teaching that accompanied and explained it. First the action: Jesus began to drive out the buyers and sellers, he overturned the tables of the money changers, he overturned the seats of the dove sellers and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.
All of these activities were perfectly legitimate and absolutely necessary for the temple's normal functioning. What does it mean then that Jesus stopped the temple's perfectly legitimate sacrificial and fiscal activities? It means that Jesus has shut down the temple but in a symbolic rather than a literal shutdown.
At this point the Marcan frames of fig tree and temple coalesce. The tree was shut down for the lack of fruit Jesus looked for - and so also was the temple. In the case of the temple it is not cleansing but symbolic destruction, and the fig tree's fate emphasises that meaning.
Sadly in much modern Christian thought, den is ignored and robbery taken to mean the commerce going on in the outer courts of the temple. This is a symbolic fulfilment of God's threat in Jeremiah. There was nothing wrong with the combination of prayer, worship and sacrifice - they are commanded in the Torah. This is not the problem. God is a God of justice and righteousness and when prayer, worship and sacrifice substitute for justice, God rejects his temple - or, for us today, his church.