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Nov 4, 2018

“Not Far from the Kingdom” 11-4-18

Mark 12:28-34
24th Sunday after Pentecost
November 4th, 2018

Mark 12:28-34 presents Jesus’ last public word in Mark’s gospel concerning the Kingdom of God.  Our Lord spent the last days of his public ministry, prior to his arrest and crucifixion, teaching in the temple.  Much of his teaching took place in exchanges with the Jewish religious leaders who, for the most part, sought to trap him with ethical and theological questions.  Matthew and Mark both record that the last question put to Jesus concerned the “Greatest Commandment” in the Law.  Matthew tells us in Mt. 22 that the lawyer was from the Pharisee party and that he put the question to “test” Jesus.  Mark alone, though, provides the positive exchange that followed Jesus’ answer.  The lawyer affirms Jesus’ answer and Jesus, in reply, tells the lawyer that he is not far from the Kingdom of God.  So I invite you to consider with me what it might mean to be “not far from the Kingdom.”

We should appreciate at the outset that Jesus speaks these words in an affirming way.  Of course, whether the lawyer heard them that way, we do not know.  We could imagine that he may have thought it presumptuous for Jesus to comment on his spiritual condition.  However, Mark characterizes the exchange as positive.  Jesus’ answer clearly means something like, “You are on the right track.  You see the truth about what is pleasing to God and essential to a right relationship with him.”   In this way, Mark ends the hostile exchanges with the Jewish leaders on a somewhat more hopeful note than Matthew and Luke.  In spite of the jealousy and animosity that would ultimately lead to Jesus’ arrest, there was at least one individual from the opposition in whose heart we can see God at work.  Thus, the phrase “not far from the Kingdom” stands as an encouragement to Christians to continue to bear witness in the face of opposition.   It is often the case that it takes time for people to come to faith, especially if faith in Christ requires a radical reshaping of one’s understanding of the ways of the Kingdom!

Jesus and the lawyer find common ground in the “Great Commandment.”  On this they are in full agreement.  The first part of the Great Commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and is known as the Shema—from the opening Hebrew word meaning “Hear” or “Listen.”   “Hear—shema—O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”  The second part of the “Great Commandment,” or its inseparable corollary, if you prefer, is from the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19, which begins, “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  Then follows a restatement of many of the 10 commandments, building up to “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” in vs. 18.   In these two injunctions to love Jesus and the lawyer found the foundation of spiritual formation for the people of God. 

In the New Testament, the Great Commandment appears in today’s text and the parallel in Matthew 22. It also appears in an exchange between Jesus and a lawyer in Luke 10.  There, it is the lawyer and not Jesus who recites the Great Commandment.  The outcome of that conversation, of course, is Jesus telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan to clarify what it means to love one’s neighbor.  Beyond these texts, Paul (Romans 13, Galatians 5) and James (Ch. 2) cite “Love your neighbor as yourself” as the summary of the law, the final word criterion of our sanctification.

To be “not far from the kingdom” means that one understands that God seeks, above all else, people with loving hearts.  Jesus makes the same point with his disciples in John’s gospel.  “A new command I give you that you love one another.” (John 13:34)  And, no one makes the case more powerfully and uncompromisingly than St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.  No matter your spiritual giftedness, without love, you are nothing.  No matter the extent of your wisdom and knowledge of God’s mysteries, without love, you are nothing.  No matter how heroically you live out your ethical convictions, without love, you are nothing.

However, to be “not far from the kingdom” is more than just understanding the primacy of love for God and neighbor.  It also entails a heart-felt concurrence, a deep-seated approbation in our souls that such a love would be our greatest good, the fullest expression of our true humanity.  As St. Paul put it, “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self.” (Romans 7:22)  Or as the Psalmist puts it, “O how I love your law; it is my meditation all the day.” (Psalm 119:97)  Jesus senses in the reply of the lawyer this kind of delight and heart-felt concurrence in the beauty and perfection of the Great Commandment.  It is for this reason that he is “not far from the Kingdom of God.”  

But, of course, not far from the Kingdom is not in the Kingdom.  To be in the Kingdom involves awareness that we are judged by the Great Commandment.  That we fall miserably short of God’s standard of wholehearted love.  As the Heidelberg Catechism teaches us, it is the Great Commandment; above all else, that exposes our misery.  The Great Commandment, when its searchlight shines into our hearts, makes it clear that we have “a natural tendency to hate God and our neighbor.”  (Q&A 5)  Thus, to be in the Kingdom is to rest in the grace of God alone and not our own strength and efforts.  To be in the Kingdom is also to grow in this grace of love by the power of God’s Spirit, such that we—feebly to be sure—not only approve of the Great Commandment, but truly begin to pursue it from the heart. (1 Corinthians 14:1)

We need to honestly acknowledge that bringing the words “love” and “commandment” together goes deeply against the grain of our cultural formation.  We may laud the Great Commandment as an ideal, but on a visceral level find it deeply counter-intuitive.  Our cultural formation is that love is feeling that rises mysteriously and spontaneously.  To command love is almost a contradiction in terms.  If I appear to love you in response to a divine command, you will probably suspect that my love is not genuine.  If my love requires some sort of effort or determination on my part, it is probably not real love.  Real love is free and spontaneous and unconstrained.   So our cultural formation has taught us to think. 

Or, just imagine a husband assuring his wife that he loves her because that is what the Great Commandment requires.  Or even because that is what St. Paul commands in Ephesians 5: “Husbands love your wives.”  It is almost a certainty that will not go over well!  Obviously, a husband would do well to express a little more feeling.  However, relationships grounded in the Great Commandment are ultimately the strongest and securest and most enduring.  As St. Paul says, “Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13) 

Of course, Biblical love, Great Commandment love, is not unfeeling.  Some Christians have taken refuge in an interpretation of the Great Commandment that drives a wedge between heart-felt affection and seeking the good of the neighbor.  Thus, it is a commonplace to hear Christians approach the command to love our enemies with the phrase, “I may have to love them, but I don’t have to like them.”  But this spirit clearly falls short of the Great Commandment.

We may think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in this connection.  The parable illustrates the full intent of “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Here is the Samaritan, an ethnic and religious outsider—a cultural other—demonstrating a compassionate heart to a fellow traveler.   There is not the least hint in the parable that his care for his neighbor is offered grudgingly, in spite of his own feelings.  It is clear that the Samaritan puts himself in the place of the victim and deals with him in abundant compassion.  Beyond that, of course, we need only think of Jesus word to the disciples—"to love as I have loved you.”  It would be a huge mistake to think that Jesus loves us without also “liking” us.  To be sure, there is much in our lives for Jesus and others not to like.  But the cross makes it abundantly clear that Jesus’ love for us is not grudging.  Abraham was the friend of God.  Jesus told his disciples, “I have called you friends.”  It is the way of God’s love to befriend the enemy.   Great Commandment love reflects God’s love.   God’s love is the norm.

This should remind us that the Great Commandment does not fall from the sky, much less the pages of the Bible, as an arbitrary standard or even a lofty ideal.  The Great Commandment arises from the story of Israel’s redemption.  The Great Commandment makes it clear that the biblical story we live by is a love story.  “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)  This is the central theme of Moses’ parting address to the children of Israel, preparing to cross into the Promised Land after 40 years of wilderness wandering.   In Deuteronomy 4:37-39 Moses said, “And because the Lord loved your ancestors, he chose their descendants after them. He brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, giving you their land for a possession, as it is still today.  So acknowledge today and take to heart that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.”  This anticipates “The Lord our God is one” in the Shema.   The Lord who is to be loved with heart, soul and strength is the God who loved first.  Moses makes the same point in Deuteronomy 7:7-8: “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh King of Egypt.”  

This is the setting for the Great Commandment.  Love to God and neighbor is the only appropriate response to the God who brings us out of the house of bondage and gives us an inheritance in the Promised Land.   St. Paul makes the same point in view of the full redemption that has come to us in the cross of Christ. “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”  To love God with heart, soul and strength and our neighbor as ourselves is to stop living for ourselves.  The Great Commandment is the content of what it means to live for God.

I will close with a few other points that frame the Great Commandment in the Old Testament.   The only person in the Old Testament who is expressly said to have loved the Lord with “heart, soul and strength” was King Josiah.  We are told in 2 Kings 23:25, “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, soul and all his might.”  Obviously there were many Old Testament saints who had the same spirit, but Josiah alone is singled out with this language.  High praise indeed for his zeal for the Lord’s worship and his purging of the land from idols!

The first time we encounter the word “love” in the Old Testament is in Genesis 22:2.  This is not to say that love didn’t exist or that love was unknown prior to the time of Abraham.  But, it is a striking piece of “Bible trivia” to note that the first occurrence of the word “love” in Scripture is: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”  Nothing anticipates the heart of the Divine love story, or prepares us to understand the full import of the Great Commandment, more profoundly than this word.

The last time we encounter the word love in the Old Testament in our English Bibles is in its last book, the prophet Malachi.  It opens in this way: “I have loved you, says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?”  Nothing shows the fallen human condition more than this opening line.  The Bible is a love story.  It traces God’s redemptive love for undeserving sinners.  The tragedy is that people do not understand the story they are in.  They see living for the Lord as a burden rather than a joy.  They see themselves as neglected and ill-treated at the Lord’s hands.  Strikingly, the Lord does not answer their whining question by listing all of his blessings.  Instead, he reminds them of their election.  He chose them.  This takes us back to Deuteronomy 7:7 “…the Lord set his heart on you and chose you…because he loved you.”   It takes us forward to Ephesians 1:3-4  “…who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”

The Great Commandment is one we pursue by grace through faith.  It takes God-given strength to love with heart, mind and strength.  Such strength is provided at the table of the Lord.  As we come to his table, may it be to us a feast of love and profound nourishment to walk in the way of ever-lasting life.

Amen.

 

Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906