The Danger of Spiritual Pretense

Posted by TJ Klapperich on 06/30/2009

Mark 11:12–25 is a really fascinating passage of Scripture. It is a wonderful piece of Mark’s understated literary technique. Unfortunately, many view Mark’s gospel as the abridged version or Cliff Notes for the other gospels. This is a severe misunderstanding of Mark’s Gospel. It is a rich literary and theological book with a message as important as any of the Gospels.  The Second Gospel repeatedly uses a literary mechanism very similar to an inclusio. Mark, in repeated passages, begins a narrative, interrupts the narrative with a second narrative, and then closes the literary section with the conclusion of the first interrupted narrative. He does this in several sections throughout the Gospel.  A great example of this also occurs in Mark 5:21–43.  The narrative begins with the sickness of Jairus’s daughter.  On the way to heal her, the narrative is interrupted by the woman with the flow of blood.  Finally, the narrative returns to the story of Jairus’s daughter and Jesus raising her from the dead.  The focus of the section is on the middle inserted pericope of the woman with the flow of blood.  What does Jesus point out about her?  He points out her remarkable faith.  Faith forms the core of the message of that narrative.  In contrast, what is lacking from the mainstream people around Jairus’s home? Faith is lacking.  On the one hand a woman who has been unclean most of her life is an example of faith.  On the other hand, respectable people, are faithless.  The lesson Mark wants us to learn is that faith is of chief importance.
There is an identical construction in Mark 11 and the cursing of the fig tree.  This passage has been problematic for many interpreters.  In fact, Bertrand Russell used Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree as an example of Jesus’ moral inferiority.  This kind of misunderstanding of the passage completely misses Mark’s literary construction and therefore, his theological point.  Mark interrupts the narrative of the fig tree with the description of Jesus’ cleansing the temple.  We are meant to see the parallels between the two.  The fig tree had leaves and looked healthy.  Fig trees often get fruit buds before they get leaves in the spring.  One would expect a fig tree to have some fruit on it if it has leaves, but the appearance of this fig tree was deceptive.  It looked healthy, but it was not.  Likewise, the temple looked like it was ordered around the Old Testament commandments to worship the Lord, but it was not.  It was a complex system to enrich the Sanhedrin.  The Court of the Gentiles, instead of being a place to worship for Gentiles, was a place of commerce and sometimes financial treachery.  This is what angered Jesus.  The Temple should have been a place for worship, but like the fig tree, its appearance was deceptive.  Like the fig tree it was not healthy.  Jesus did not curse the fig because he was merely hungry, but he did it as a living parable of the fate of the temple.
We need to learn the lesson of the fig tree.  Spiritual Pretense is dangerous.  This is very important for American Christians to learn.  We are tempted to think that because we are prosperous that we are blessed by God.  But our worship, in too many cases, has become hollow.  We have replaced spiritual health with spiritual pretense.  We have exchanged real love for God and the Scriptures with religious activities and pretense.  Worship has been replaced by entertainment.  Congregational singing has been replaced by watching others perform.  Preaching has been replaced by talk-show styled chats.  And Prayer has nearly been banished from our churches.  Pastoral prayers are almost non-existent in our pulpits, and too many sermons are comedy routines rather than expositions of the Word of God.  I fear that if we don’t learn the lesson of the fig tree, we may find that we will die from the roots as it did.  We must never delude ourselves into believing that religious activity and appearance are equivalent to spiritual health and real worship.