Time and Place—The Gospel of Mark (chapters 11-15)


Because half of Mark’s gospel focuses on the last week of Jesus’ life, some scholars have referred to Mark as an expanded passion narrative. This week’s readings (chapters 11-15) take us from Sunday through Friday of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.


Chapter 11 begins “when they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives….” As you are reading this week, I think it would be helpful to have some sense of where the events are taking place and how close they were to each other.

This is Race Week in Richmond. If you live far enough away from RIR, you may not even notice. But this weekend if you need to rent a car or a room, or if you have to travel out Laburnum Avenue, you will realize that a lot of visitors have traveled here. And if you drive near the racetrack you will see fields filled with RVs, as people “camp” close to the track.

Passover week in Jerusalem was like that (except for the car rental part). The city was crammed with visitors from all over the world. Every available room was rented out. Instead of staying in the city, Jesus and his followers stayed in Bethany the early days of the week, and Mark tells of them walking back and forth. On Thursday they camped on the Mount of Olives.

Until I visited Jerusalem, the distance between the temple and Jesus’ campsite hadn’t registered for me. Bethany was the hometown of Jesus’ friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It was about two miles from Bethany to the Temple. The Mount of Olives was about half a mile from the Temple. Maybe some pictures from our 1997 trip to Jerusalem will help.

The site of the Temple is marked by the golden dome on the right. The Mount of Olives is in the right center—the small dots are olive trees. This is what it looks like from above the Mount of Olives. An Arab merchant is peddling keffiyehs to Aaron and me (I think we bought both of them. I’m sure I’ve never worn mine). To the right you can see the Mount of Olives and a half mile beyond is the Temple site (which is now a mosque; the gold dome is called the Dome of the Rock, the oldest Islamic building in the world. It was constructed in 691-692 over the rock where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac). Here’s a closer look at the olive trees on the side of the hill. What must it have been like to sleep on this hard ground? And here is the Garden of Gethsemane, down the hill between the Mount of Olives and the city.

A key to reading scripture is to put yourself in the story. It helps to be able to see the places in our minds and to imagine that we are climbing up and down the half mile of dusty hillside and standing under the tall trees of Gethsemane, like Mark, watching the soldiers come to arrest Jesus.

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11 Responses to Time and Place—The Gospel of Mark (chapters 11-15)

  1. Kasey Buckland says:

    Wow! Sammy- thanks for the pictures this week. That was really helpful and gives me more perspective. I was just wondering about the passage in mark 12 dealing with the question about the widow marrying the 7 brothers. It got me thinking…what will heaven look like? From scripture do we know what our relationship will be like with our earthly friends and families? Will we all be angels in heaven? What does really look like? (wings & halo that come down and help people on earth 🙂 )

  2. Sherida Kemp says:

    Logan and Kasey-In reference to your questions about the cursed fig tree…I feel you! I used to think Jesus had thrown a massive temper tantrum. But if I’m not mistaken (Sammy please correct me if I’m wrong), the leaves of the fig tree bloom at the same time as the fruit. So if you see the leaves, you should expect to see the fruit.

    • sammywilliams says:

      But notice that Mark tells us “he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs” (Mark 11:13).

      • beth mc. says:

        The fig tree story really got my attention. My little OCD brain has been chewing on it all week. Here’s some thoughts, based on stuff I’ve read:

        Remember that Jesus speaks in parables and stories and symbols, and here the fig tree is a symbol that Jesus uses to get his point across. So first – why a fig tree rather than an olive tree or something else?

        Ched Myers is author of a book called “Who Will Roll Away the Stone?” which is an interpretation of Mark. He writes: In the Hebrew Bible, the fig tree was a symbol for peace, security and prosperity in Israel. The fruitful fig tree was a metaphor for God’s blessings, while a withering tree symbolized judgment (see Jer. 8:13, Is. 28:3f, Joel 1:7 and 12, Hosea 9:15f)

        So Jesus is telling a “visual parable” about a tree that symbolizes peace and judgment.

        Why would he be looking for fruit on a fig tree when it’s not the right season? Well, to make his point, he needed the illustration of a tree with no fruit. So perhaps he was verifying what he already knew – it wasn’t the right time for figs, so this tree would have no figs. (Or I have another thought about this, below)

        To see what Jesus’ message is, I notice there’s another “Mark sandwich” here.

        Bread: In Mark 11:12-14, we see Jesus cursing the fig tree, the symbol of the fruit that was supposed to be borne by Israel and brought to the sanctuary in worship of God.

        Sandwich filling: Then in Mark 11:15-19, he does his thing in the Temple. He isn’t just throwing a tantrum, but like the prophets in the Old Testament, he is using physical action to “play out” a message from God: the Temple has become corrupted, it is no longer fulfilling its purpose as a source of spiritual strength and ethical guidance for Israel; instead it is all about cozying up to the Roman power structure and making money for those in authority. They are profiting off the worship of the people (see the story of the widow in Mark 12:41-44 – Jesus is not praising the widow for her sacrificial giving, he is denouncing the Temple hierarchy for extracting ‘all she had to live on’).

        Bread: The next day (Mark 11:20), the disciples see the rest of the symbol: the fig tree has withered, a symbol of judgment against the Temple system, which is no longer a source of life and fruit-bearing by Israel. Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him.” – This is the summary to his action in the Temple. He symbolically “overthrew” the corrupt structure of the Temple hierarchy, and he is pointing to the reality of what the disciples can do as they join in his ministry to renew Israel and call the nation back to its covenant relationship with God and one another (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and your neighbor as yourself”).

        I got really stuck on the whole question of why was Jesus looking for figs when it wasn’t the season for figs. Very puzzling. But the other possibility I can think of is this: the text says the tree did have leaves, so that shows it was healthy and had the POTENTIAL of bearing fruit. Perhaps that also was symbolic of the Temple system – it could have borne fruit. But since it wasn’t, Jesus symbolized God’s judgment by cursing the (potentially fruitful) fig tree.

      • sammywilliams says:

        Way to go Beth! I love your interpretation and especially the “sandwich” image!

        BTW Rob Bell takes Ched Myers’ analysis a step farther and says that the Temple authorities had claimed the fig tree as the official symbol of the Temple leadership. Rob concludes that Jesus’ act of withering the fig tree was actually beyond a symbol of judgment—it was like burning the flag would be today. Incendiary.

        Building on your last paragraph summary (which is exactly on target!), at Lunch Break Bible Study on Wednesday we peaked ahead at Luke 13:6-9 (The Parable of the Fig Tree) and speculated that Jesus had told this story early in his ministry—give the tree a year to bear fruit; if it doesn’t, then cut it down—and now in his last days he demonstrated with the withering of the actual tree that the Temple authorities had chosen not to become fruitful and would be destroyed.

  3. logan jones says:

    Loving the pics Sammy …

    Thanks Sherida – can’t wait to continue to delve in deeper together as we are doing RIGHT now … Praise God for a Teacher and a Pastor like Sammy who uses his Blog as such a nifty connecting tool!

    Let’s invite more people to come and meet us here?!


  4. beth mc. says:

    I like the pics too! Thanks!

  5. Kasey Buckland says:

    Ok- so mark 13- end times. Why does he say ‘heaven and earth will pass away?’ why is heaven leaving? I thought that’s where we would be going with Jesus.
    Also when people die here on earth do they go into a ‘great sleep’ until Jesus comes back and raises them from the graves? Or do they go straight into heaven?

  6. Kasey Buckland says:

    Mark 15- why is some random Joseph the one who asks Pilot for Jesus’ body? Why not any of the disciples? Was there a bounty or any type of warrant out for the disciples?

  7. Sandy Russell says:

    Mark 16 – What about the “signs that will accompany those who believe?” Who was supposed to display there “signs?”

  8. Sandy Russell says:

    Sorry, I meant “these signs!!”

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