Was Jesus violent in the cleansing of temple and cursing of the fig tree?
DID JESUS ENDORSE VIOLENCE BY HIS CLEANSING OF THE TEMPLE AND HIS CURSING OF THE FIG TREE?
These two episodes are discussed together here because they are connected in time and purpose. Mark11:12-26 indicates that Jesus cursed the fig tree just before entering Jerusalem to “cleanse the Temple” from the thieving “sellers and moneychangers.” The next morning, Jesus revisited the fig tree to see that it had “dried up and withered from its roots” due to His earlier curse. Since the cleansing of the Temple is sandwiched between the cursing of the fig tree and its subsequent withering, it is clear these events are vitally linked. But before I explain their connection, I first want to make some preliminary points.
First, this passage is the most common Scripture cited for the proposition that Jesus DID engage in physical violence during His ministry. I once had a wrathful pastor use this passage to confidently claim that Jesus was like the martial arts film star Steven Seagal, violently chopping down opponents with “literal” kicks, punches and machine guns.
Sadly, I could see the unrighteous bloodlust in this pastor’s eyes as he used this passage to create a monster I can only describe as KILLER JESUS. The bloodlust I saw in his eyes reminded me of paintings I have seen depicting the Roman gladiatorial games where the rabid crowd gives a frothing “thumbs-down” to fallen gladiators, a sign which required the victors to then slit the vanquished’s throats. The crowd wanted violence. The pastor wanted violence. He used this Bible passage to claim Jesus wanted violence.
There is only one problem with that pastor’s claim: it is absolutely groundless. Jesus hurt NO human being in this event, for if He had, He could and would have been LAWFULLY arrested, something the Jewish authorities had desperately wanted to happen. Mark 11:18 confirms that the scribes and chief Pharisees wanted to destroy Him in this passage, so His breaking of the law by assaulting several Temple Jews would have given them all the ammunition they needed. But, this Scripture at no point claims that Jesus harmed ANY human at ANY time in this story. Jesus “knocked over” some tables and verbally “cast out” a group of profiteering thieves who had no right to be in the Temple in the first place.
And in fact, AFTER Jesus cleared the Temple of the thieves, look at WHO and WHAT immediately took their place. The “blind and lame” came into the Temple courts and “He healed them all” (Matthew 21:14). Then, a large group of “children” came and saw the healings and started “crying in the Temple, and saying Hosanna to the son of David.” (Matthew 21:15-16). Jesus rejoiced at this and called what these children did “perfect praise.” The point is that Jesus “cast out” the faithless, felonious and fruitless elements present in the Temple courts SO THAT they could be replaced with elements of fruitful faith and fervent worship.
This passage says that ALL there, including the chief priests and scribes, saw “the wonderful things that He did” (Matthew 21:15). This is hardly a mandate for KILLER JESUS is it? No, when we read the context of what REALLY happened here, we see it was a wonderful healing and worship revival rather than some sort of bloodbath where Jesus is beating and brutalizing people. But, because our wrathful eyes are so trained to focus on violence, we take Jesus’ actions totally out of context and ignore the “perfect praise” and “healing” ministry that resulted from Jesus’ actions. The Matthew 21:1-17 version of events makes no mention EVER of anybody being harmed. It is as simple as that.
But, didn’t Jesus take a whip and beat the money changers away? No, not at all. Matthew’s and Mark’s respective Gospel versions of this event (Matthew 21:1-17; Mark 11:12-26) never even MENTION a whip. And while John’s version does mention Jesus taking “a scourge of small cords” to drive “the sheep and oxen” from the Temple, commentators since the earliest centuries confirm, as have most modern translations, that this passage limits the scourging to just the sheep and cattle, and not to the men. (See Today’s English Version; The Moffat Translation; The Darby Bible; The Goodspeed Bible; The Zurich Bible; The New Revised Standard Version; The World English Bible; The Authorized Standard Version; and commentators McGregor, Temple, Plummer and Strachan). These Bible versions and commentators connect the “all” in John 2:15 as referring to BOTH “all” the sheep and to “all” the cattle, but NOT to “all” the moneychangers.
These translators all believe that the proper Greek construction of this passage can refer to EITHER the sellers and moneychangers OR to the sheep and cattle, but not to both. The common sense context here makes the sheep and cattle the only sensible option, particularly since the following verse (v.16) has Jesus orally telling the remaining den of thieves to leave, an action hardly necessary if he had ALREADY whipped them all away. It is obvious that the cord of small knots was for the animals alone. But was this cruel to the animals? Not at all, particularly since they were all about to be sacrificially executed if Jesus had let them be. If nothing else, Jesus was giving the animals a reprieve to live another day.
The term used to describe Jesus’ actions toward the moneychangers and sellers was that He “cast them out.” To “cast out” merely means that Jesus commanded them out and away from the Temple, and in fact John 2:16 tells us that Jesus VERBALLY commanded the merchandisers to “take their things hence.” Remember, Jesus spoke with an authoritative tone in His voice like no one had ever heard before (Matthew 7:29). He even bowled over several troops by just using His voice in John 18:6.
The bottom line is that to use this episode of Jesus cleansing the Temple, wherein He healed the lame and the blind in the midst of a cadre of children crying perfect praise in His Father’s house, AS PROOF that Jesus used physical violence on men—— is simply ridiculous. If anything, it proves just the opposite. Jesus cleared the Temple courts WITHOUT sword or fist. Did He use aggression? Yes, certainly, but He did NOT use physical brutality. He was not KILLER JESUS!
Now, what about the cursing of the fig tree? Can this be used to justify the claim that God curses men to wither and die just as He did the fig tree? Certainly not! A plant is NOT human, NOT sentient, and NOT made in the image of God. To use violence against a plant to justify violence against a human is outrageous and silly.
Moreover, the real meaning behind the cursing of the fig tree is directly connected to the cleansing of the Temple. Jesus, just before entering Jerusalem to cleanse the Temple of the sellers and moneychangers, first passes an unproductive fig tree (Mark 11:12-26). Jesus then tells the fig tree that no man shall ever eat its fruit again. He then proceeds into Jerusalem and cleanses the Temple as described above. He then leaves the city. The next day, Jesus passes the fig tree again and sees that it has dried up from its roots and died, all within 24 hours of Jesus first speaking to it.
So, what does this mean? Jesus was merely repeating, reinforcing and re-demonstrating to the disciples the exact same dynamic He revealed to them when He zealously cleansed the Temple. UNFRUITFULNESS MUST GO!
Jesus purged the unfruitful elements out of both the Temple and the fig tree. Jesus verbally rebuked the false and fruitless authorities out of His Father’s house which had made it a den of thieves. He cast them out, then what IMMEDIATELY happens? Fruitfulness RUSHES in to fill the vacuum with the healing of the blind and lame combined with the perfected praise of the children described earlier. Do you see? Unfruitfulness is VERBALLY denounced SO THAT fruitfulness can return. So too with the fig tree. Jesus denounced the unfruitful fig tree SO THAT another fruitful fig tree could grow in that same spot.
This is why I believe the fig tree and the Temple-cleansing form a double-helix dynamic where Jesus is modeling the same exact message twice. He denounced the sellers and moneychangers so that fruitfulness would be restored to His Father’s house, which it immediately was. He THEN repeated the lesson by denouncing a barren fig tree so that fruitfulness could likewise be restored to the area being taken up by the worthless plant.
The point of this passage is that Jesus aggressively, but not violently, purges the false identities out of creation which do not bear fruit—- demonstrated here by removing the false motivators out of His Temple, and then by removing the false plant which bears no fruit. Both the Temple and the fig tree had become empty husks—- false identities in other words. Jesus emptied the Temple of the false so He could fill it with the real. Jesus then removed the false fig tree so that a real one could grow in its place. Jesus is zealous that all things Godly MUST bear fruit.
So then, this passage is not about the KILLER JESUS, but rather about the HEALER JESUS! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.