Not far from the kingdom

Psalm 24, Mark 12:28-34, November 1, 2015

Last week I mentioned how we had been journeying with Jesus through Mark’s gospel in worship and in Kids’ Power Hour for a little more than a month. We ended last week on Palm Sunday Eve, with Jesus and the disciples and a large crowd, which included the formerly blind Bartimaeus headed up to Jerusalem. Bartimaeus was the one in the story who saw clearly. He was the one who called Jesus “Son of David;” Jesus restored Bartimaeus’s sight out in the open for lots of people to see. The action was about to turn dramatically as Jesus and everyone with him headed to the Temple.

In Mark’s gospel, the first thing Jesus does when he reaches the Temple is…look around, realize it’s late in the day and return with his disciples to Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem, where they spent the night.

It was on Monday, the day after Palm Sunday, that Jesus cleansed the Temple, throwing a big tantrum, turning over the tables, driving out the money changers…this made the chief priests and scribes start looking for a reason to kill him. And they were afraid of him, but he held the crowds at the temple spellbound with his teaching. He was a threat to the leaders, but he was popular with the masses. Jesus and his disciples left Jerusalem at the end of the day.

On Tuesday they returned to the Temple. And here begins a series of stories, like beads on a necklace of the religious leaders trying to trap him, trying to trip him up, trying to find grounds to silence or punish him.

He knew what they were up to and he was every bit as clever as they were. There are repeated occasions when Jesus debates against the religious authorities.

They asked him whether they should pay taxes to Rome. He asked for a coin, asked whose image was on it—the emperor’s. “Give to emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

Then a group called the Sadducees, who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead asked Jesus a hypothetical question about the afterlife. At the end of the encounter Jesus says, “He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”

All of these controversies are happening on the religious leaders’ turf. And every time Jesus avoids the traps they have set. He shows he is a skilled, even entertaining, debater and he is very knowledgeable about Jewish law and tradition.

Unique among these beads on the necklace is today’s gospel lesson, which Debbie read a minute ago. In this story, a scribe who has heard the other discussions approaches Jesus respectfully and asks a sincere question. Too often we imagine that all the elders, priests, scribes and temple officials were corrupt, unethical, legalistic and petty. Here’s one who engages Jesus sincerely and to whom Jesus responds in kind.

What is the first commandment? The scribe asks.

Jesus’ answer comes right out of Torah, , “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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.”

Jesus’ answer comes straight from the Book of Deuteronomy—with one significant addition: Jesus adds “All your mind.” In our society today, I really need to point this out. When many people regard science and religious faith in conflict, our Lord and Savior does not. We have minds with which we love God, and with we seek to understand the world around us. I believe human curiosity, the drive to understand is a God-given gift.

Jesus goes on to add what he considers the second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I’ll come back to this idea in a moment.

The scribe recognizes that Jesus has answered correctly and that loving one’s neighbor is more important than ceremonial offerings and sacrifices. Jesus replies, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” “You are not far from the kingdom of God” doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, but compared to the things Jesus has said the last couple days to other religious leaders: “[The owner] will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” “You are quite wrong.” “Why are you putting me to the test?”

When I was in college a professor walked past me and a classmate. He recognized my friend from his class. He mentioned a presentation she had made in class and said, “I think I’m glad you’re in my class.” I admit the words don’t sound like much, but the smile and the gleam in the professor’s eye made my friend feel very, very good. I imagine Jesus making this scribe feel good too.

I want to close with a few minutes to unpack the idea of loving one’s neighbor…and loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.

In other Gospel stories Jesus is asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Here the word is just there, unexplained. John Wesley had this to say about loving one’s neighbor.

Thy neighbor—that is, not only thy friend, thy kinsman, or thy

acquaintance; not only the virtuous, the friendly, him that loves thee,

that prevents or returns thy kindness; but every child of man, every human

creature, every soul which God hath made; not excepting him whom thou

never hast seen in the flesh, whom thou knowest not either by face or

by name; not excepting him whom thou knowest to be evil and unthankful,

him that still despitefully uses and persecutes thee: Him thou shalt love

as thyself. [John Wesley, Sermon 7: “The Way of the Kingdom]

In short, no one is not our neighbor. Usually we think of next door neighbors when we hear that word, but it’s very, very hard to draw a line, neighbors on this side, and others whom we are not obligated to love on that side.

For many of us, I think this commandment is hard for a different reason. See the commandment as it appears in Leviticus and as Jesus quotes it, assumes that one loves oneself. But there are lots of people who find it much easier to love other people than to love themselves. They are much more forgiving of others than they are of themselves. They are much more eager to extend grace to another person than to accept it for themselves.

What if Jesus had said, “Extend love to yourself as eagerly as you extend it to someone else.”? The gift of grace is for everyone. The scandal of grace is that everyone needs it. The very hardest thing about grace is to accept and trust it.