Formations 03.25.2018: Breaking the Rules

Matthew 21:12-22


During Britain’s heat wave last summer, teenage boys at Isca Academy in Exeter staged a protest against their school dress code, which forbade the wearing of shorts. This protest took the form of them coming to school in skirts they had borrowed from their sisters or girlfriends.

Although the school’s headteacher expressed willingness to consider a future change to the dress code in the future, the boys’ actions were already being reported worldwide by numerous media organizations. Isca Academy had an honest-to-goodness revolution on its hands. The school apparently realized they were fighting a losing battle, and none of the boys were penalized for their clothing choice.

As Anne Perkins noted in her column on the incident, defying authority is a rite of passage for adolescents. Although some school rules serve many useful purposes, “there are rules that are just rules.” Part of growing up, she says, is to tests the limits of these rules and even call out rules that get in the way. She writes,

Clearly schools have to create an environment that makes learning possible and delightful and life-enhancing. For children from troubled homes, order and predictability must be a blessed relief. But it seems to me that they also have to create an environment where it is not just legitimate to be different, but acceptable. If obedience was seen as the preeminent advantage of the socialisation process for the industrial age, it is the last thing that’s useful in a world where the slogan of the new gods of Silicon Valley is to move fast and break things.

This week’s text asks us to consider how Jesus and his followers defied if not the “rules” of the temple, then certainly its sense of decorum or propriety. People made a scene when Jesus entered Jerusalem. People spread their coats on the ground before him. Some of them added palm branches. Children shouted “Hosanna!”

They understood that something momentous was happening—something even more unprecedented than an English heat wave. The “Son of David” had come! What could they do but offer unbridled praise?

And yet, all the chief priests and scribes could see was a rabble of rule-breakers causing a commotion.

Perkins’s column concludes with an anecdote about Cardinal Basil Hume when he was the headmaster of Ampleforth College. Hume once told a prospective parent that he saw his role as preparing his charges for death. That meant teaching them about what matters most:

Being naughty, breaking the rules, is part of learning which [rules] are the ones that matter. You don’t need to believe that one day you will meet your maker to hope that on your deathbed, you will be able to say that you lived as you thought right, even—or perhaps particularly—when it meant challenging authority.


Anne Perkins, “Exeter’s Schoolboys in Skirts Follow a Proud Tradition of Breaking the Rules,” The Guardian, 23 June 2017 <>.


• How can we discern when a rule serves a valid purpose and when it is “just a rule”?
• Have you ever broken a rule you believed got in the way of what really mattered? What consequences did you incur? Was it worth it?
• How shall we describe this provocative act of Jesus? Is it cleansing, condemning, warning, or something else?
• How does the cursing of the fig tree provide a commentary on Jesus’ actions?
• How do the vignettes in these verses reveal Jesus’ priorities??

Reference Shelf

The Fig Tree

Jesus tells a parable of an unfruitful fig tree (Luke 13:6-9). A similar parable appears in versions of Ahiqar (Syriac, 8.35; Arabic, 8.30; Armenian, 8.25), but the tree is shown no mercy. The fig tree is also featured in the parable at the end of the apocalyptic discourse in the Synoptics (Matt 24:32; Mark 13:28; Luke 21:29).

The cursing of the barren fig tree in Mark 11:12-14, 20-22; Matt 21:18-20 has long troubled interpreters. Luke omits the story, though some suggest that it is derived from the parable in Luke 13:6-9. Mark sandwiches the condemnation of the Temple between the two parts of the cursing of the fig tree, so that the latter interprets his actions in the Temple. Since the fig tree was closely linked with the nation’s security and destruction, the action is appropriate and prophetic (cf. Jer 8:13). The Temple cult appeared to be prosperous, but like the barren fig tree it bore no fruit.

R. Alan Culpepper, “Fig Tree,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 301.

Jesus in the Temple

As we have come to expect, the First Evangelist’s presentation of the episode in the temple is more abbreviated than Mark’s account. For one thing, there is no surveying of the temple on one day and then coming back and doing the prophetic sign act the next. Those who have doubted the historicity of the story have totally missed the point, which is that Jesus as a prophetic sage is performing an enacted parable or prophetic sign act. As a real attempted cleansing of the temple, it would have fallen well short of its goal, and in any case it is not clear that “cleansing” is signified by this action.

The Matthean portrayal of Jesus’ action in the temple depends on Mark 11:15-17, but he has placed this story before the cursing of the fig tree rather than in the middle of the story as in Mark. In Matthew the temple action is the first major thing Jesus does when he gets into Jerusalem. The second half of the Matthean portrayal of this event is basically unique to Matthew, and there especially we find his distinctive notes, so something should be said at this juncture about his presentation. Once more it has to do with his christological portrait of Jesus as sage/Wisdom/ like but greater than Solomon.

In the Matthean portrait, why is Jesus so angry in the temple? In part it is because the place is so corrupt that Jesus foresees its doom within a generation. In part it is likely also because Jesus came to this place to teach in Solomon’s Portico during the festival, on the outer edges of the temple precincts, to offer wisdom just as Solomon had done (see Matt 21:23), and he discovered impediments and obstacles and distractions in the way. According to the First Evangelist, Jesus also came and performed miracles associated with Solomon’s wisdom in the temple precincts, such that even the blind and lame would be healed there (Matt 21:14); in the Old Testament, the blind are nowhere said to be healed by any previous kingly or prophetic figure. Jesus came to proclaim and usher in the divine saving activity, the Dominion, right in the place where God was thought to be most present, and what did he find? According to the First Evangelist there were even children in the temple precincts when Jesus did such wonderful things, shouting, “Hosanna to the son of David,” which is to say, hosanna to the royal one who is like but greater than David’s greatest son— Solomon. Finally, 2 Samuel 7:13 also promised that the Davidic messiah would one day build the eschatological temple, just as Solomon had done before. Matthew 26:61 tells us Jesus said something about the temple being destroyed and rebuilt.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 393–6.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


For further resources, subscribe to the Formations Teaching Guide and Commentary.

Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson. To purchase the volume quoted in today’s Reference Shelf, please click Here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email