Last month at the fall Classis meeting, we heard Dr. Mark Mulder, a sociology professor from Calvin College, give a presentation on “Shades of White Flight,” a book which analyzes the racial issues in the Chicago area. It was very interesting and a very helpful presentation and prompted a lot of questions. He was available for more conversation over lunch, but there were so many asking him questions that I knew that it would not be possible for me to talk more with him. I was impressed with his research though and would have loved to have sat down with him for a few hours to talk with him more about the topic of race relations.
This is what is happening here in this next part of Mark. Jesus has just given a powerful rebuttal to the Sadducees on the question of the resurrection and one teacher of the law is impressed! He comes to Jesus with a question, not to trick him, but to pick Jesus’ brain and get some answers and see what Jesus thinks. Jesus’ response though is what is so curious. Jesus tells him that he is very close to the kingdom of God. What can we learn about what is needed to be in the kingdom of God from this passage? Let’s read Mark 12:28-34.
I. The most important commandment is clearly stated in verses 28-31.
Verse 28 says, “Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” There is some important background to understand regarding this question. A distinction between lighter and weightier, smaller and greater commandments was a common feature of Jewish piety and theological discussions. It was traditional to speak of the 613 individual statutes of the Law. Typically the ranking of the commandments would be based on the nature of the demand in the commandment. Or possibly the importance would be based on the severity of the punishment if the command had been broken. But both methods are based on a piety of human achievement in obeying the law.
In addition the attempt to summarize the whole Law in a single saying was also common in the early scribal teachers. One Jewish elder, Hillel the Elder, once said, “What you yourself hate, do not do to your neighbor: this is the whole Law, the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” Jesus’ response goes much deeper than the distinction between small and great commandments and goes to our relationship with God as the heart of the matter. For Jesus the whole Law is summarized in the will of God which calls for love which is the whole-hearted response to God and to the neighbor.
Mark alone reports Jesus’ use of the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4. This verse was used by pious Jews as a prayer and confession of faith recited every morning and evening since the second century B.C. So Jesus is not only being soundly Scriptural here, he is reflecting the common practice of piety which everyone would agree with. But this verse does not just reflect an act of piety.
It is the Lord our God who is to be loved with a completeness of devotion which is emphasized by the repeated “all.” Because the whole person is the object of God’s covenant love, the whole person is claimed by God for himself and must love God as a whole person. Jesus demands a love for God and for God alone in an unconditional manner. Clearly this is far more than mere pious actions. This love gives ourselves completely to God and places one’s whole person in the service of God.
The command that follows immediately as a result is that we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. It’s not enough that we love God for that love must be displayed in how we act toward and treat others. Perhaps you’ve seen this sign on a billboard along the road “That ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ thing.... I meant that. – God.” Loving our neighbor is not just a nice sentiment or a nice philosophy. It’s a command from God and Jesus himself says that it’s a core part of the Law that God expects us to do!
II. The teacher of the law eagerly affirms Jesus’ answer in verses 32-33.
These words are only found in Mark and contain some interesting details. The teacher does not state God’s name as “the Lord.” That would be typical since the Jews would not say God’s name out of respect. The qualifying phrase “and there is no other beside him” is drawn from other places in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 4:35 Moses tells the people, “You were shown these things so that you might know that the Lord is God; besides him there is no other.” Isaiah 45:21 says, “And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me.” There is no other God besides the true God and we are to love him above all. Jesus’ answer lines up perfectly with the teacher’s understanding of the law. Remember that he is not here to trick Jesus but to delve into Jesus’ mind.
The truly surprising part of the teacher’s response is his declaration that the law of love is superior to sacrifice. In a setting where rigorous observation of the law was enforced, this is surprising. The common scribal position is summarized by Simon the Just: “The world rests on three things: the Law, the sacrificial worship, and the expression of love.” Still there are also statements in the Old Testament that are very clear. 1 Samuel 15:22 says, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” Hosea 6:6 says, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” Proverbs21:3 says, “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. This teacher understood that the moral life, especially loving others, is more important than rigorous obedience and sacrifice.
Even so, this statement still falls short of expressing that inner commitment to God that Jesus was teaching and had just affirmed in his summary of the Law. As close as the teacher is, he still doesn’t grasp the fullness of Jesus’ words. One fall day in 1975 I was sitting in my college New Testament Greek class. My Greek professor, Dr. Frank Weaver, pretty much intimidated every student in that class with his clipped speech and swept back jet black hair. He had the unforgiving demeanor of an Army drill sergeant and when he called on you to identify some Greek form, it caused fear and trembling. One day he called on me and asked me some question, the specifics of which I don’t remember, but immediately my heart started pounding! I froze like a deer in the headlights and then suddenly I knew the answer and I said, “Oh, that’s just the aorist tense.” He stopped, looked at me and said, “Just?” and smiled at my naive and unwarranted self-confidence. I was learning it but I had not by any means mastered it in spite of my answer. This man was pleased that Jesus agreed with him and Jesus was pleased that he was on the right track but he still had to get to the point of stating that the real core of life with God was accepting and following Jesus.
III. Jesus tells him that had answered wisely and that he is not far from the kingdom.
Jesus’ statement, “you are not far from the Kingdom” is deliberately ambiguous and was undoubtedly intended to provoke reflection on the part of this teacher. The scribe’s openness and humility before God did show some understanding of what Jesus was teaching and a leaning toward accepting it. His enthusiastic approval of Jesus’ teaching revealed an attraction toward Jesus. He is attracted to the one through whom God had brought the kingdom near but he isn’t ready yet to follow Jesus. Jesus wants him to see that the focus is not on the heart of the Law but rather an acceptance of the demands of the Kingdom that Jesus is bringing.
The silence of Jesus’ adversaries is significant in the context of the debate. The Jewish leaders had been trying to trap Jesus and they have come up empty. I can imagine them standing there frustrated and stunned! They had given Jesus their best attempts to trap him. Not only had Jesus avoided their traps, he was perilously close to converting one of their own! This was not going well for them at all! Jesus will take this silence as an opportunity to start asking his own questions of the Jewish leaders; questions that they could not answer.
Now if you are like me, I want to know what happened to this man. We would like to know what happened to him but we don’t know. But Mark’s purpose is not to satisfy our curiosity but to cause us to think.
So what do we learn from this section? First, our Christian life is not about religious actions but about loving God and having loving actions to others. I’m not saying that the disciplines of reading the Bible, prayer and worship are not important; quite the contrary, they are vital to our growth as Christians. But what matters more is that we are first of all loving God with all we are and in everything we do. We demonstrate our love for God in the way we love at home, the way we teach our children, the way we do our work and how we interact with others. Loving God and loving others is where our hearts should be above all. But we learn how to do that by reading and studying the Scriptures, by talking with God daily in times of prayer and by worshiping God together.
And the other lesson is that all of this begins with Jesus and what he has done and will do for us in his kingdom. We can love God and love others. We can study and know the Bible inside and out. But we must believe in and live for Jesus completely more than anything else. This teacher was close but until he accepted Christ as his Lord and his Savior in his life, he wasn’t inside the kingdom.
That’s what Jesus is looking for from this teacher and that is what Jesus is looking for in us. Accepting Jesus doesn’t just get us close to the kingdom; it gets us in. Praise God for that! How will we love God and love others around us in this week?