Sunday, November 1, 2009

Close Enough?

Close Enough?

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, November 1, 2009

Mark 12:28-34

"One of the scribes came near...
You are not far from the kingdom of God."

Not far…



Our passage begins as Mark declares that one of the scribes “came near” to Jesus and asked him a question. Matthew and Luke report this event as well, almost word-for-word. It must have made a big impression. Most of the time when we read this little account toward the end of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem, we get focused on the scribe’s question and Jesus’ answer, the fact that it is a well known and well-worn question that was often presented to Israel’s teachers, a sort of challenge to get them to show how wise they were by how concise a formulation of Israel’s vast law they could make. Many of them chose, as Jesus did, a recitation of some form of two verses from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. These were verses that every child of the covenant learned at their parents’ knees, so answering the scribe’s question with these words would have been something like a routine pop fly for Jesus. It is important to say things we already know: “I love you,” “wear your seat belt.” Still, if other teachers before him had done as Jesus did and recited these verses as the most concise rendition of Israel’s law, what does his use of them say about Jesus? What distinguishes him here from other teachers?

Perhaps it is equally important to notice something else about the passage first. Like bookends, the little passage opens and closes with the very same idea, the idea of nearness, though it is rendered differently at the beginning and at the end. The passage begins as the scribe “came near.” It closes as Jesus tells him, “You are not far.” Near, and not far, two ways of seeing the same thing, maybe from two different perspectives. The defensive back, chasing the ball carrier streaking down the sideline, is near, and this inspires him to try to run just a bit faster. The ball carrier, seeing the defensive man, sees that he is not far from him, and is inspired also to increase his speed.

There were two ways to be near the kingdom, Jesus declared, as he recited the concise form of the law. Both were essential: Loving God, and loving others. These sound like the stuff of children’s sermons and Sunday school classes from our earliest memories, and it is no wonder. It was the same for first century children in Israel. The responding question for most children would be, “How do we love in these ways?”

Now, there were no people in Israel more picky about the details of the Law than the scribes. It was their whole life. So it’s not surprising that Jesus turned his question back on the scribe, inviting him to look into the wealth of the Law of Israel for an answer to his own question about the greatest law, the most comprehensive. Which commandment is first of all? Is it not one that a scribe could recite without having even to pause to think, the one that every Jewish child has learned to recite from the time he could speak: “Hear, O Israel...”? It is no surprise that the very core of Moses’ speech to the people of Israel should form the basis of Jesus’ answer. But as the scribe must also have known, the delivery of this commandment, and the high esteem in which it was held, did not guarantee anything about the obedience of the people.

If this was the greatest commandment in the law, wasn’t it true that it also represented the greatest failure of the people of Israel, for hadn’t they failed miserably in their attempts to obey its implications? So Jesus included the second aspect which flows naturally from the first. Love God, “and your neighbor as yourself.”

Once C.S. Lewis was asked to speak about stewardship, and his response was that, on the whole, God’s love for us is a much safer topic than our love for him. He was right. Because the fact is, it is impossible for us to keep the primary command in the whole law of Israel, to love God, unless we also live according to the second, to love neighbors.

How do we love our neighbor? It isn’t only Christians who have struggled to answer such a question. Jesus’ definition of the one who is our neighbor, calling for our loving concern, is one whose need may be met by our service. That’s it. The need of others defines our neighborliness.

There is a story told about Mahatma Gandhi of India, who one day was traveling by train. Just as he stepped aboard the train, it jolted into motion and one of his sandals slipped off and dropped along the tracks. Gandhi calmly reached down, took off his other sandal and threw it back along the track, where it landed beside the first.

One of his traveling companions was surprised at this strange behavior. Why had the teacher done such a thing, he wanted to know? Gandhi just smiled and said, “Think of the poor man who finds my shoe lying by the track. He will now have a complete pair he can use!”

A product of Christian schools in South Africa, though not a Christian himself, Gandhi was a man of imagination when it came to understanding how one should love the neighbor, even if it was a neighbor one had never met. When he lost one sandal, he saw in his mind’s eye not his own bare foot, but rather the two bare feet of another man: a poor man, coming across not a single, useless sandal, but a complete pair of sandals, and smiling with delight. Rather than clinging to his lone sandal and mourning his loss, Gandhi let go of what he had, released it to the universe so it could be of service to someone else.

The surprising feature of our story is that the scribe caught on so quickly to the essence of Jesus’ message. Having caught on, he expressed his new discovery: “You are right, Teacher... to love him... is much more than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.” To love God in heart, and to live it in life means more to God than all the ritual fripperies we can offer. Then, finally, came the dangerous part.

“And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And after that no one dared to ask him any question.”

The old, rather gruesome saying that used to make the rounds in the military, and still does, I suppose, was that “almost” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Far more often, being close is just as good as having missed altogether, as in a football game in which the score was close. In the end, what does it matter? Losing by 1 point, or losing by 25 is still losing. Being close hardly provides much satisfaction to a team that is struggling through an 11 game season in which the deciding game was close, but not close enough.

Imagine being told after months, years, of preparation that even though you still didn’t pass the critical exam, you had been close. What good is close, when there is all that matters to you? Being told you were close to landing the airplane correctly as you are being taken away in the ambulance; being told you were close to the group that made the cut-off for acceptance into medical school; being told you were close to being a decent human being... Sometimes — lots of times — close just isn’t good enough. It’s being almost there, but not quite there.

In effect, Jesus left the scribe and the others who were listening to him, just where Mark wanted to leave his readers. We are close. If we have come this far into our faith in Jesus Christ, we are close to the kingdom of God, no doubt about it. But we aren’t there yet. Jesus’ words, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” hang in this story like an unresolved chord, a murder mystery with the last chapter missing, meant to serve not to frustrate, but to invite. It is an invitation delivered not only to the children of Israel waiting in dust up to their ankles in the region across the Jordan, not only to a nameless scribe in Palestine, not only to the first readers of Mark’s gospel in the first century, but to us. We are called upon to supply the response to the unanswered invitation of this passage.

In the end, Jesus said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Not far. And Mark says that after Jesus said this, “no one dared to ask him any question.” Not far. It’s as if you can get just so close on your own power, but you can’t actually get there by your own power. How do we take the last step, so that we are no longer only close but we are there? There is only one who can take that last step, who takes it for us, and it is the one who was talking to the inquiring scribe that day. We can get just so far on our brains, our enthusiasm, our commitment, our desire to do what is right, but after all of it, all the effort we can humanly muster, Jesus turns to us and says, “You are not far...” So how to get there?

The way to get there is to trust on the only one who can take that last step for us, to learn to trust on Jesus the Messiah, the Deliverer. It is not an answer that the scribe is close to, it is the Savior. When we are near to Christ, we are not far from the kingdom of God, and it is only through Christ that we can get there. Being near to Jesus. It turns out, it is close enough.