Not far from the kingdom of God

Week of Sunday 4 November - Pentecost 23
Bible:  Mark 12:28-34

28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”;33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.

As a young Christian, the words “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, instantly appealed to me.”  It was such a clear, uncompromising statement. I knew what to do.

It took me years to realise that loving the Lord with all my mind meant listening to my mind rather than being faithful to the mind of the first conservative theologians I had read.

It took many more years before I realised that to" love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength" is the same as "loving one’s neighbour as oneself."

If I do not love my neighbour as myself then I cannot love God with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind, and with all my strength.

The structure of what Jesus is saying is simple. He speaks to the scribe in the style of the Psalms, that Hebraic poetry where the first line makes a statement and the next repeats it in different words. The words are different, but the point is the same; or a variation on the same.

1 Happy are those
   who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
   or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
   and on his law they meditate day and night. (Psalm 1)

The text is more complicated. It fundamentally challenges how we talk about God, and how we imagine God.

According to Juel (Mark, Augsburg Commentaries): "The question is ... a familiar one from Jewish tradition: Is there a way of summarizing the commandments?" (Brian Stroffregen)

Unlike Matthew (22:34) and Luke (10:25) the question to Jesus is not posed as a test in Mark.  In Mark, the scribe understands that Jesus knows what he is talking about; he sees the depth of Jesus. So he asks, “What is at the guts of loving and serving God? What’s the centrality of our faith?” It’s the same question we might ask any friend we admire.

The controversy occurs because Jesus and the scribe firmly align themselves with one particular theological understanding of Israel’s faith. This was reflected in some of the prophets.

Micah asks

6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
   and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
   with calves a year old? 
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
   with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
   the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ 

The answer is, “No.”

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?

Hosea calls Israel back to God.

‘Come, let us return to the Lord;
   for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
   he has struck down, and he will bind us up. 
2 After two days he will revive us;
   on the third day he will raise us up,
   that we may live before him. 
3 Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;
   his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
   like the spring rains that water the earth.’

He imagines God begins to speak.

4 What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
   What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
   like the dew that goes away early. 
5 Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
   I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
   and my judgement goes forth as the light.

 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
   the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings. 

These prophets had escaped that mindset which wishes to find fulfilment in the keeping of rules. It is so much simpler to follow God when there is a prescribed sacrifice laid down; just the correct amount of grain, or the right kind of pigeon; just the right number of bible chapters read each day, plus church on Sunday.

Especially for those of us who are comfortably off, this makes following God easy. Just follow the rules. Pay God’s tax. The poor in Jesus’ time could not do this. The required sacrifices cost too much. Sometimes we do the same: "Don’t come in here without a suit."

This is an easy God to follow. It requires little thought; one simply follows the directions of one’s favourite Rabbi or minister. Or one can delight in hair splitting arguments about the finer points of the law, tithing dill and cummin, arguing over texts, and avoiding harder issues.  

The great danger is that while keeping all these rules we can still be “buying the poor for silver
   and the needy for a pair of sandals,
   and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” (Amos 8:6)

It does not matter; we have kept the law, according to one kind of logic.

Indeed the law can become a slight nuisance.

4 Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
   and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 
5 saying, ‘When will the new moon be over
   so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
   so that we may offer wheat for sale? (Amos 8:4-5)

The prophets saw that God’s first concern is people.

Jesus saw that God’s first concern is people— there is no other commandment greater.

And the scribe agreed—  people are much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices. 

Elsewhere, Jesus says ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; (Mark2:27) In the same way, the Law is made for humankind, not humankind for the Law.

People are not easy. Loving people is much harder than loving a God who has laid down some clear rules.

For me this has been an issue of conversion. It was something to be understood deep in the soul; some seeing that was beyond intellect.

It had to do with compassion; feeling with others, or walking in their shoes, as we say. This was not an intellectual understanding that all people are equal. It was a much deeper feeling of equality; a slow recognition that my feelings of hurt, of loss, of anxiety are the same as any other person’s, and worth no more or less. It was a warming of fellow-feeling that went beyond class and common interests. It has been a growing of respect for all others that is slowly becoming part of who I am, rather than a duty.

A similar slow conversion has happened to my understanding of God, who is no longer an external other; no longer a being who looks down on us from a distance, and who we are to satisfy.

Instead, God is within us. God is so profoundly for us, and so closely identified with us, that we best see God in the honouring of other people and of the planet in which we live. To dishonour another is to dishonour God. To dishonour the land is to dishonour God. This is not a rule. This simply is.

We recognise without question that to cut off our fingers is to do ourselves harm, and even to dishonour God.  In the same way, a conversion awaits us where we will know that to harm others is to dishonour God, even to harm God. It involves  an absolute change and conversion of our identity. It is not knowledge, it is not duty, it is what and who we are— without question.

I have sought to find my reality and meaning and purpose, by defining myself and understanding myself. It has been a process which has separated me from others and from God. Definition involves boundaries. I am beginning to wonder if my real understanding and finding myself is not to be gained in being lost in God, which means being lost in others; that is, loving others just as I love myself, making none of us worth more or less.

In all this I have had “the merest taste” of what I am writing about, and yet it has been life changing. I think it may be what Jesus was describing to the scribe; being "not far" from the kingdom of God. Despite stress and compromise, a small pool is welling with in me; a kind of placidity. Not a placidity where one is instructed to go placidly amidst the noise and haste (The Desiderata), but a placidity which is just there; given.

Bible Text


Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!




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