“NOT FAR FROM THE KINGDOM OF GOD”
August 30, 2015
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Southpark Christian Church
“You are not far from the Kingdom of God,” Jesus said to the scribe who originally asked him which was the greatest commandment. And then Mark tells us, “After that no one dared ask him any question.”
Which could lead you to wonder if being near the Kingdom of God was a bad thing.
“I’m not asking him anything. Did you hear that the last guy to ask him a question was not far from the Kingdom of God? So you ask him, not me!”
Now, if that’s not it, then what was the curious silence and refusal to ask him anything else at the end of this story? Was it that one of the scribes, who usually had an adversarial relationship with Jesus, compliments Jesus on his answer about the greatest commandment and reaffirms it with his own commentary?
Jesus said that there were no commandments greater than these – loving God with your whole self and loving your neighbor as yourself – and the scribe added, “These are much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” In other words, he was agreeing with Jesus. If now, Jesus’ enemies were his friends, maybe people were confused about who belonged where in Jesus’ world.
Or maybe they thought Jesus’ statement was really deep. Such things – loving God with whole self and neighbor as self – the scribe said were much more important than the offerings and rituals performed in the Holy Temple everyday. And then Jesus said he was close to the Kingdom of God. How could turning your back on the holiest of rituals and towards loving your neighbors bring you to the precipice of God’s Kingdom?
Maybe this is difficult for us to figure out because if you have been in Church for very long this statement by Jesus is very familiar and very comfortable to you. This story is repeated in both Matthew and Luke – you should look them up because both of those gospel authors change Mark’s original story in ways that fit their theology. In addition, Matthew quotes the passage in a couple variations of the saying. It is also found in Paul’s letters as well as in the Book of James. Of course Jesus was quoting two passages from the Hebrew Bible: the first from Deuteronomy 6 and the second from Leviticus 19. This idea of loving God with your whole self and your neighbor as yourself has been a vital part of the Christian faith since the end of the first century.
So, why was the crowd silent after they heard Jesus tell the scribe, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God”?
There is a trap in all religions, whereby rituals performed by the pious can become more important than people. All religions have their rituals from the Church’s Eucharist or Islam’s pilgrimage to Mecca, to making food offerings and prayers to Hindu gods or Yom Kippur in the Jewish faith. Christians cannot claim to be any less ritualistic than other religions.
To be devoted to prayer, to fasting, to pilgrimages, to silence, to tithing and generous offering calls for sacrifices great and small and often we call such persons devout. To be deeply religious there is a general idea that such matters must be practiced and those that do not practice them are less devout. However, it can often be the case that such practices are rather safe. Sacrificial, yes, but also safe. When you pray to an icon, the icon does not insult you or ask you for gas money or rent money. When you write an offering check for a charity, it does not ask you for a ride once a week to the store, or argue with you in a church committee. When you fast during Lent your stomach might get hungry during meal times, but you won’t have to dig in your pocket for every panhandler around town, or have difficult conversations about race with people from different backgrounds. Piety is controlled. Rituals are predictable. People are not.
The emphasis by Jesus that loving God with your whole self is tied to loving your neighbor as yourself means that Christianity cannot be practiced by acts of piety alone. It has to be practiced in community, which means it has to be practiced with real human beings and for human beings. With people who are grumpy and self-centered, with people who worry and get scared and while they want to do the right thing often do the thing they think keeps them safe. It means that it has to be practiced with people who break your heart, who make you mad, who disappoint you, and who also love you madly and cause you to do things you never planned on doing.
It’s a lot easier to take the Eucharist, fast, make pilgrimages, take silent retreats. Not that there is any thing wrong with rituals of spiritual practice. They can be transformative experiences. It’s just that when the scribe said loving God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself was more important than any ritual, Jesus told him that he was not far from the Kingdom of God.
We cannot get to the love of God without going through the love of others.
Did you notice that the scribe asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment of them all? He didn’t ask for the top two.
We may think that loving God with your whole self and loving neighbor as yourself are two commands. Jesus didn’t. Two parts maybe. Tethered together. Two sides of the same coin. Back to back. In Jesus’ mind the two great commandments were inseparable. The scribe did not ask Jesus what were the top two commandments — just the greatest one. But Jesus can’t speak of one without the other.
The first part was a gimme. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind,” was central in Jewish theology. The Shema, it was called. A 13-year-old boy preparing for his Bar Mitzvah could have gotten that one right.
The second is ultimately what kept people from asking him any more questions.
The two great commandments, when paired as one, complement each other. One is more heavenly directed, the other is more earthly directed. One is spiritual, the other physical. One focuses on the invisible God, the other focuses on face-to-face humans.
To be in a right relationship with God it takes both of those loves. The tiny New Testament book of I John says it over and over — “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. . . Beloved since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. . .
“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters, also.”
But of course as Luke showed us in his version of the story we read today, whom we define as our brothers and sisters, whom we define as neighbor, makes all the difference.
The Randall Kerrick trial has exposed a divide in our city that seems to always be lurking under the surface. The Charlotte Observer tried to tell us that the trial was not about race even while its first sentence after the mistrial was announced was that this was a case about a white police officer shooting an unarmed black man. It’s not about race, they said, but their very first sentence defined the accused and the victim by race. How is it that white people generally saw this trial from one viewpoint, while people of color generally saw it from a different viewpoint – confirmed by the racial breakout of the jury’s decision? Can we say that we really love our neighbor if we cannot even see the world through his or her eyes?
CMS is re-examining diversity and questioning the morality of re-segregating our schools. In the next few months we will be hearing about a new student reassignment plan. There will be listening sessions and community input. Even if the school board can come to an agreement, which will in some way re-integrate our schools, will white parents be willing to send their children to school with racial minorities, and will middle-class parents of all races send their children to school with poor children? Can we say that we really love our neighbor as ourselves if we will not send our children to school with their children?
The Supreme Court decision this summer making marriage equality the law of the land has created a backlash. Caterers and photographers and county clerks are saying they will not serve same-sex couples. It is against their religious beliefs. So, they are going to prove their love for God by a lack of kindness and charity for people who have different beliefs. In what way is that loving your neighbor as yourself?
When this church or any church in our city tries to serve Jesus by ministering to the poor, will we do it as neighbors and friends, or as the privileged helping the poor? When you do Room in the Inn do you sit with your guests and enjoy a meal and conversation with them as people, or do you stay in the kitchen and serve them from a distance?
Your former pastors, Greg and Helms, are trying to live out neighbor love and love of God by choosing to live in a poor neighborhood and building bridges across racial lines. Is that what God is calling all of us to do? In what ways will this congregation keep the relationship with your former pastors in order that you can love your neighbors in Enderly Park?
Maybe these are the reasons no one asked Jesus any more questions. You are not far from the Kingdom of God, Jesus said to the scribe. And in their silence maybe they were asking a question inside their heads, a question that maybe is inside of our heads – if that’s what getting near the Kingdom of God is, do we really want to go there?