There is absolutely no doubt that Jesus was a constant source of puzzlement to his contemporaries. This seems very odd to modern readers of the Gospels, who wonder about the collective blindness of Israel. Indeed, Christian theology has accustomed us to see in Jesus the promised Messiah fulfilling the numerous Old Testament texts, and we marvel at the all-apparent incredulity of the Jews. The source of our puzzlement is to be found in the fact that Israel did not understand the prophecies like we do. How is that to be explained?
Let us for a moment stop and place ourselves within the context that prevailed at the time. Palestine was under the control of Rome and, as history shows, that control was rigid, not to say brutal. The deep aspiration of any enslaved nation is for freedom. But in Israel’s case the aspiration went much deeper because of its longstanding awareness of being God’s chosen people, whom God had at different times freed from the Egyptians, the Philistines, the Syrians, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians respectively. Most of God’s intervention had been achieved by extraordinary feats of power. That God would also free the nation from Rome was a given. Furthermore, the expectation had been honed to a fine edge by the countless promises of a Messiah, who like Moses and Elijah of old would come and drive the hated conquerors away with a display of raw power. This is the national consciousness that Jesus breaks into.
Some thirty years earlier, there had been some strange rumors of a baby being born in unusual circumstances. Miracles reminiscent of ancient historical occurrences had taken place. Shepherds had seen and heard angels sing: “…Peace on earth among men in whom God is pleased.” A much-respected priest had been struck dumb, but then his first words on recovering speech had been: “… he has raised a horn of salvation…that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hands of those that hate us.…” To top it all, it was said that an angel had announced to the would-be mother that her son should be named Emmanuel, God with us. Talk about excitement.
Thirty years go by and the excitement has somewhat subsided. Then appears and man dressed in the garb of the old prophets and he invites the people to prepare for the coming of he who is mightier. True, his call was for repentance, but it is not at all hard to see how the excitement caused by the announcement of the coming of “the mightier” one pushed any idea of moral repentance to the side. Soon after, the man known as “Jeshua” begins to preach that the Kingdom is indeed come, and he proceeds to change water into wine, cast out demons, heal the sick, feed the throng, and resurrect the dead. Mark summarizes well the excitement: “At once his fame spread everywhere throughout the region of Galilee” (1:28). In a short time, the fever would also reach south to Judea. That the hero has come is in every mind.
But then, Jesus begins to utter some rather unexpected, not to say strange, statements like “Love your enemies…if they ask you to do so much, do even more.” The statements are accompanied by actions that cause more concern. He heals the servant of a Roman centurion; he spends time with the Samaritans; he feeds four thousand heathens in the eastern region of Lake Galilee. The words and the actions do not forebode the kind of deliverance, primarily political, that the nation is impatiently waiting for. Three long years of waiting go by. At last, the hope flickers and dies. Under the instigation of the religious leaders who determine that it is expedient that the pseudo messiah should die, the mood of the nation turns ugly and the drama as far as the people are concerned ends in violence on the hill Golgotha. By the time Jesus is murdered, the disciples themselves have not yet understood the true nature of the freedom offered by their master
With the above context in mind, it is not difficult to see why the overall conduct of Jesus was so puzzling to his contemporaries. Just one case in point: the cursed fig tree and the vendors chased from the temple. Mark’s account (11:12-23) is very interesting in that he is the only one who ties both events together as happening in sequence: first the cursing of the fig tree; then the chasing of the vendors; then the interpretation of the fig tree incident. Mark quotes Isaiah and Jeremiah to explain the actions of Jesus. Isaiah 56:1-8 had identified the temple as the place provided by God to be a house of prayer for all nations. God had designed the temple to be his invitation to the strangers (non Jews) and to the eunuchs (I am a dry tree). The Jews restricted such individuals to the external courtyard of the temple. But then, they turned God’s House of Prayer into a trade mart, effectively preventing the gentiles from the possibility of worshiping.
Mark also quotes Jeremiah 7:11, which says that the temple had been turned into a den of robbers. A den is a place that provides refuge, security, and comfort. The Jews had come to believe that they could behave in whatever way they wished then come to the temple and say, “I am secure.” By chasing the vendors (minions of the priests), Jesus reintegrates the courtyard into the temple, thus giving access to God to the non-Jews and to the marginalized. As to the sense of spiritual security of the Jews, it is reduced to nothing. The fig tree covered with green foliage (understood to be God’s blessings) symbolized the nation but Jesus curses it and it becomes dry, that is, it has no life and is not productive. Mark uses irony. It is no longer the eunuch that is the dry tree, it is Israel. Israel is to be replaced by a new people. Talk about puzzling conduct; shocking is maybe more to the point.
Maybe the lesson for Seventh-day Adventists is to be always aware that the same danger lurks. We who rest on our “supposed” knowledge of end-day prophecies, have we possibly put God in a box and will be caught by surprise if he does not act according to our well-designed scenarios with charts and all?
Eddy Johnson pastors two churches in Sidney, Australia.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/582