Mark 12:28-34

NOT FAR FROM THE KINGDOM

 

Jesus is in Jerusalem and the pressure against him continues to rise. The religious authorities bring a series of controversial questions to Jesus in an effort to discredit him in the eyes of the people. Today we look at a question brought by a scribe. Unlike the other questions posed to Jesus so far, this one appears to be sincere and yet given the context it too was likely meant as a trap for Jesus.

#1 The Question

Jesus has just finished telling the Sadducees that they are wrong in their teaching on the resurrection when a scribe steps out of the crowd. He is impressed by what he heard from Jesus acknowledging that he answered them well (v.28). And he has a question for Jesus as well: Which commandment is the most important of all? (v.28) This appears to be a sincere question but perhaps he too is hoping to trip Jesus up in how he answers.   It’s not surprising that a scribe would ask a question like this. The scribes and Pharisees were intently concerned with the law. The rabbis of the day counted 613 laws recorded in the Torah alone. That’s 365 prohibitions and 248 positive commands. No wonder you would hear one of them ask for clarity as to exactly which is the most important of all.

The Bible is not a rulebook, but this is exactly how the scribes treated it. It’s a bit overwhelming if you only see the Bible as a book of rules. What would the scribes and Pharisees do with a book that is actually meant to be a rulebook? Apparently golf has a lot of rules to it. I paged through the current edition of the PGA rulebook this week. It’s big – 162 pages to be exact. That’s a lot of rules. I think the Pharisees would have loved golf!   Now imagine someone asks you to tell them what golf is all about. Could you boil down those 162 pages and tell them what golf is all about? Even if you’ve never played golf I bet you know the point of the game is to get a little ball into a hole .   At the end of the day, that’s what it is about. That’s what this scribe is asking. He wants to know what law of God fundamentally about. At the end of the day what is it all about? Is there a commandment that explains all other commandments?

 

#2 The Answer

Jesus responds by quoting two passages of Scripture from the Torah. The first is from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which is known as the shema and would have been recited every morning and evening by faithful Jews. This is also one of the passages that they would literally (pun intended) wear on themselves inside of their phylacteries. So needless to say this would have been a familiar Bible verse. Jesus responds, The most important 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.’ (v.29b-30) As I said this a quote from Deuteronomy but there is a twist. In Deuteronomy we are told to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength. Jesus adds that we are to love God with all of our mind as well. This is Jesus demonstrating the authority he has over Scripture itself. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says that there is another foundational commandment. He quotes Leviticus 19:18 saying, You shall love your neighbor as yourself (v.31).

Let’s notice a few things about Jesus’ answer:

 

-1- It all boils down to love. The summary of the law is love. If the game of football is all about getting the ball into the end zone, then the law of God is all about love. Sometimes we pit the law and love against each other as if I have a choice to act according to the law or to act according to love. Jesus would say you can’t obey the law without love. Or as Paul puts it in Romans 13:10, “love is the fulfilling of the law.” Without a spirit of love, obedience to the law means nothing to God.

-2- True love is all-consuming. See that God’s standard of love is all consuming. We are to love God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength. And we are to love our neighbor the same way we love ourselves. The Pharisees and scribes were consumed with the law for the same reason many are consumed by it today. They thought that by obeying the law they could earn favor with God and a place in heaven. The law was a ladder they could climb straight to heaven. This belief continues today. It is not uncommon today to hear someone say that while they know they aren’t good enough to earn their way into heaven, they hope to “do their part” to gain God’s love. God will certainly reward their sincere efforts. But see that Jesus’ summary of the law makes it harder not easier to earn our way into heaven. Who can honestly say to God that they have loved him with all of who they are? We all fall short in this.

-3- Love for God and love for others are not separate items. Jesus was asked to give the most important commandment of all and yet he responds by giving two commandments. But we shouldn’t read this as two separate priorities in our lives. These two foundational commandments are connected to one another. We fulfill the command to love God by loving our neighbor as ourselves. This is exactly what the apostle John writes in 1 John 4:20: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” So it’s not that I am to exhaust myself loving God and then with whatever is left I love my neighbor. No they must go together. My love for God is seen in my love for others.

 

#3 The Response

The scribe agrees with what Jesus has said but it is difficult to tell how he felt. We don’t know the tone with which he responded to Jesus but his words are very affirmative, You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him (v.32). He then strings together a number of Old Testament passages further affirming the truthfulness of Jesus’ answer. While it’s not clear where exactly his heart is, Jesus sees that he speaks wisely (v.34) and tells him that he is not far from the kingdom of God (v.34). Remember that the first words out of Jesus’ mouth in the Gospel of Mark were part of a sermon: the kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:14-15). This was Jesus’ first sermon and now 12 chapters later we hear him say to this scribe that he is not far from the kingdom. But we have to ask, is this good thing or a bad thing?

A few weeks ago the Philadelphia Eagles were “not far” from the end zone and thus very close to winning the game but ultimately they fell short. They were close but not close enough. “Not far” from the kingdom and being “in” the kingdom are two very different realities. Perhaps this man thought that because he understood the most important commandment that he was in the kingdom. But not so says Jesus. He is simply “not far” from it. What then is left for this man to do? Jesus told us back in that opening sermon: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel (Mark 1:15).” Repent and believe. This is what remained for the scribe. He needed to repent – and not only of his sin but of his trust in himself. And further he needed to have faith – again not in his own goodness – but in the gospel. He needed to put his faith in Jesus.

This section ends in curious way, And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions (v.34). For now, Jesus has silenced those who sought to trap him in his words.

 

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think the scribe asks Jesus this question?
  2. Explain the answer that Jesus gives. What do we learn from Jesus’ words here?
  3. Does Jesus’ summary of the law make it easier or harder to obey the law?
  4. What should our response be when we finally discover we are unable to keep these foundational commandments?
  5. Why do you think Jesus says that all of the commandments boil down to love? Why is love the important of all?
  6. What is the relationship between the first command to love God and the second command to love others? (If you are stuck, look up 1 John 4:20.)
  7. Share a time when you experienced God’s love through the love of others.
  8. Are you a loving person? Is there an area of your life that you need to ask for God’s help to be more loving?
  9. How does God’s love for you help you to love God and to love others?
  10. How does the scribe respond to Jesus?
  11. Jesus tells the scribe he is “not far from the kingdom of God.” Should the scribe be encouraged or discouraged by these words? What is keeping him from being “in” the kingdom?
  12. What is one thing you will do as a result of studying this passage?
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