READ : Mark 12:32-34
And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Mark 12:32-34 rsv
It must have been refreshing for Jesus to meet a questioner like this one. He had been dealing with people whose motives were dubious. They came to Him with mock respect, asking their “loaded” questions. He knew they wanted to embarrass Him, to catch Him in His words, to gain some pretext for putting Him out of the way. Should they give tribute to Caesar or not? they asked. They hoped to turn His answer, whether yes or no, into some kind of charge against Him. Or what about this woman who had married seven brothers in the same family? “In the resurrection you talk about, Jesus, which one’s wife will she be?” These wiseacres planned in this way to make His teaching appear ridiculous.
Sometimes Jesus would confront such carping questioners with a rebuke. “You are very far from the truth.” Sometimes He would leave them hanging with a cryptic remark or penetrate their defenses with a searching question of His own. But after this encounter with a man Mark describes as a “scribe,” Jesus spoke with warm approval: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
What was there about this man that was so encouraging? Listen as Mark records the encounter, beginning with Chapter 12:28:
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, `Hear, 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 mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
A WELCOME INQUIRY
What was different about this man, this scribe? Notably the attitude with which he approached Jesus. Whereas others had been seeking to embarrass or entrap Him, this man comes with evident respect and admiration. In answering the questions about paying taxes to Caesar or marriage ties in the resurrection, Jesus had responded with consummate wisdom. He had confounded His critics, thwarted their schemes to make Him look bad. This scribe (that means an expert in the Jewish law, someone well versed in the Scriptures) had been listening with evident approval. He saw “how well” Jesus had answered. The word could be translated also: “how honorably” or even “how beautifully.” The scribe was impressed.
With him there was not the slightest desire to put Jesus at a disadvantage. He saw where the truth lay in the discussions that had been going on. He recognized Jesus as a master teacher, and wanted to hear more. Let Him continue expounding the ways of God with men, bringing the truth to light!
If you’ve ever taught a class or led a discussion or been plied with questions, you know how varied in tone these inquiries can be. Some are trivial, hardly worth spending time on. Some are asked for purposes of self-display, by persons confident they already have the answer. Some are trick questions designed to call forth a laugh at your expense. Some are downright hostile, suspicious and sneering. But then there are some you delight to hear. Someone really believes that you have something to contribute, a worthwhile insight to share. They want to hear from you. Perhaps it’s a friend in the listening group who wants to give you a chance to say something he knows is important to you. Questions like that make you feel relaxed, relieved and grateful.
This man asked Jesus about a vitally important matter. Of all the things that God requires of people, what stands at the top of the list? What does the Almighty look for most in us? How Jesus must have welcomed that kind of search! Here was a man not working an angle, not covering up a hidden agenda. He really wanted to know about something that mattered deeply. He wanted to hear how human beings can fulfill the purpose of their existence, how they can please God.
A STRAIGHT ANSWER
And since the question is frank and genuine, Jesus responds directly, giving the man just what he asks for. To know the one, true living God and to love Him with all our being: that’s it. That command comes first. And the second, Jesus goes on to say, from which the first can never be isolated, is that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Then Jesus adds, “There is no other commandment greater than these,” as though to say, “This is what you’ve asked for. Nothing takes priority over this call from God to walk in love.”
Now notice how the man responded: “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that He is one, and there is no other but he,” and so on. Here is a ringing affirmation of Jesus and His message. This scribe, whose profession is the study of God’s law, who is looked upon as an expert in what pleases God, says to Jesus, “Well done! Honorably, splendidly answered!” Among many who were murmuring, criticizing, searching for a basis to accuse, here was a distinguished scholar-teacher, trained in the schools of his day, who says in effect, “Jesus, You could not have said it better.”
Now He demonstrates that He had been listening carefully. He repeats what Jesus has said, recasting, paraphrasing, showing that he has clearly understood. His approval, in other words, is not thoughtless and superficial. He puts Jesus’ response in his own words and then proceeds to amplify and apply it. To do this, He goes on, “is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
That’s the kind of thing a teacher looks for in his or her students: understanding of what has been communicated, an ability to articulate it for themselves, and a keen grasp of its implications, how it matters. Teachers want students who can grasp the truth, internalize it and apply it to life. Jesus had spoken earlier Himself about how obedience is better than sacrifice, how God wants mercy, kindness, more than He wants animal offerings. How cheering it must have been for Him to hear this now from the lips of the scribe.
The man must have known that he was taking a risk here. This open affirmation of Jesus could hardly have been popular among the Lord’s critics and enemies. And there were doubtless some in the audience to whom these added words would have been shocking. Why, the man seemed to be calling in question the value of the whole sacrificial system! Many in Israel believed that by offering the appropriate sacrifices in the worship conducted in the temple, they were fulfilling the major part of their duty to God. The scribe made a lot of people feel uncomfortable that day, but he didn’t seem worried about that. He was ready to say “Amen” to Jesus’ words and to follow the truth wherever it would lead him. Some of the other scribes in the group must have wondered about their colleague: “Whose side is he on anyway?”
Then comes this word of Jesus, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” What was He saying to the scribe? His words seem very different from those spoken to another inquirer he remembered, Nicodemus. He too had been a respected leader of the Jews, learned in the things of God. But Jesus that night had brought Nicodemus up short. He told him that he could not enter the kingdom of God or even see it unless he, Nicodemus, were born again. Nicodemus would have to be totally transformed, made new, to get near God’s kingdom, yet this scribe, Jesus says, was already close to it. How so?
Jesus saw, Mark writes, that the man had answered wisely. Or as another translation puts it, “thoughtfully” or “with understanding.” Jesus sensed in this man an openness, a receptivity, a welcoming of the light. That impression was deepened when he heard the scribe’s response.
How was he “not far” from God’s kingdom? It was evident that he responded positively to Jesus Himself, respected Him, sought His counsel. That was important. Beyond that, he wrestled seriously with the command of God and its implications for life. Where people are open to Jesus, willing to be taught by Him, and where they let themselves be engaged by His Word, and seek to apply it in their own situations, they’re surely on the right track, moving in the right direction.
Remember how Jesus said on one occasion, “He who is not against me is for me”? This man was in no sense against Jesus. He was rather a truth seeker. He was open to whatever Jesus had to teach and to give. He gave thoughtful attention to the word of Jesus, and showed himself willing to affirm it openly, to become himself a witness to what Jesus had declared.
But still, the man wasn’t in, apparently. He wasn’t far from the kingdom but there was still some distance remaining. He was not yet on the inside. What was still lacking?
I spent a sizable portion of my life in theological seminaries. I attended one for three years after graduation from college, then spent another two or three years in a different one, pursuing doctoral studies, taught full time in still another for ten years, and I’ve had various part-time involvements with seminaries since. One of the things I became aware of in that milieu is the difference between talking theology and living it, between discussion and discipleship. We find it easy sometimes in a seminary setting to listen to lectures and sermons, to comment about them, to express our approval or disapproval, and to become capable articulators of the Christian message. But none of that guarantees that we will live it out. It’s possible for us to become hearers of the Word but not doers, experts in describing God’s way who never get around to doing much about it.
And that’s not a peril confined to seminary classrooms, either. It can happen just as easily within the church. We may be very enthusiastic about the Word and affirm all that the Bible teaches, yet never really function as salt in the earth and light in the world. Talking about the will of God is not the same thing as obeying it.
This man’s openness to Jesus, though encouraging, was only a beginning. Would He go from respect for His teaching to a real personal commitment? Would He remain as an admirer at a distance or would He become a disciple? Would He throw in His lot with Jesus? Would He put His whole trust in Him?
These words, “You are not far from the kingdom,” were meant to be affirming, yet also inviting. Jesus was saying to him, “You’re on the right track. You’re moving in the right direction. But don’t stop there. Keep following that line and see where it leads you.” The words, “You are not far from the kingdom,” expect a question, “How do I get closer? How do I actually enter in?”
Maybe the response of Jesus to this scribe was not so much different from that He made to Nicodemus after all. Something more was needed in both cases. A miracle of grace, the new birth, the new life.
What do you suppose Jesus would say about you? Are you in His kingdom? Have you listened to His Word? Believed His promises? Trusted in Him as your Savior, committed yourself to Him as your Lord and Master? Then the kingdom has become a present reality for you. All who have repented and believed the gospel, submitting themselves to Jesus’ lordship, are kingdom people. They are in.
Maybe today you are still fairly far away. You haven’t been especially interested in what Jesus had to say or seriously open to Him and His claims. Up to now, you may have been facing the opposite way. Well, if knowing that you’re at a distance should lead you today to turn around and move toward Him, that would be a great thing.
Or maybe like the scribe, you’re fairly near. You’re open to Jesus and His Word. There is a response in you to His truth, and He’s saying to you, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” If that’s the way it is, keep going in the same direction. And don’t stop until you’re totally committed to Jesus Christ!
Prayer: Lord, wherever this word finds us today, however near or far, help us in faith to move toward You and become Your devoted followers. In the name of Christ. Amen.