I think we do this because the Temple story is such a bigger story. And we can wrap our minds around why Jesus might set things straight in the Temple. It is harder to understand the fig tree story and maybe even why it is in the passion week stories at all. I am appreciative of N.T. Wright and his commentary on this passage that helps me understand the fullness of this story and what Mark is doing his gospel with these three stories.
Much like Mark 5 where Mark takes the story of Jairus' daughter and sandwiches in a healing story of the woman bleeding, he does that here as well. And both times in my opinion the middle story grabs the majority of the attention. Here Mark is sandwiching the story of the Temple in the story of the fig tree. Here is the full text:
12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
Mark wants to use the fig tree story to help along the temple story and to use the temple story to help along the fig tree story.
N.T. Wright says this regarding the sandwich of stories: "But Mark makes it clear, by the placing of the Temple incident within the two halves of the fig tree story, that he sees Jesus' actions as, again, a dramatic acted parable of judgment. This was Jesus' way of announcing God's condemnation of the Temple itself and all that it had become in the national life of Israel." (Mark for Everyone, p. 151)
We tend to make the story of the temple about economics and how leaders were using the temple for commerce. And while we need to be mindful of how economics affects us today and especially our churches and their decisions, the issue at hand is the idea of the temple in the first place. The temple is a place for sacrifice. Jesus will become that final, full sacrifice and they cannot even see the Son of God in their midst for what he truly is. Which is why Jesus will curse the fig tree and cleanse the temple, and give a speech about a mountain thrown to the sea. In N.T. Wright's words Jesus is acting out this dramatic parable of Judgment. Jesus shows God's power on an innocent tree, then a big show in the temple. Then when he speaks of the mountain being thrown to the sea, he is referring to the Temple and sharing that the Temple means nothing next to God. God will judge and the new sacrifice is His son, Jesus Christ. The innocent fig tree plays its part in the parable to draw attention to the fact that God will judge the Temple and bring glory back to Him rather than the place where He resides.
In our world today, we must be wiling to come to God and worship Him, not our churches and with a forgiving spirit be willing to help lead our churches to not be places of power, but places where God's justice can reign. That will change what a church looks like. Jesus stood up for the powerless, even when he had all the power, and wants His church (His bride) to do the same. That is the journey we are traveling and hopefully innocent fig trees won't have to lose their lives so that we can keep learning this lesson. Without malice and aggression we must stand up for the powerless, even if that means standing up to the church.