Thursday, 1 November 2012

Not far from the kingdom

by Peter Lockhart

Jesus speaks consistently about the notion of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. In fact Jesus refers to the kingdom over 100 times across the 4 gospels, 17 times of which are found in Mark’s gospel.

It is fairly well understood these days that Jesus appears to have been referring to the kingdom as the rule or reign of God in the moments that were being lived. In this sense the kingdom is not a place but a way of responding to God appropriately. This might be understood as a realised eschatology which is what we pray for when we pray on earth as it is in heaven.

However, in addition there are inferences that the kingdom is also something that is coming, something which lies ahead. It is an anticipated time when God’s rule will be found in all places in heaven and on earth. This might be understood as an anticipated time to come – an eschatological future for which we wait.

In this sense there is both an already and a not yet that is part of both Jesus words and thus also Christian conversation about the kingdom. It is an already and not yet that it could be argued is present in Jesus very life for he is both the beginning and ending of all things, the alpha and the omega as the scriptures put it.

In the particular conversation that we heard today, however, Jesus uses the somewhat unusual phrase that the scribe is not far from the kingdom.

How is it that the scribe is not far from the kingdom?

Is he not far from the kingdom because he has understood the central tenets of loving God and loving neighbour?

Is he not far from the kingdom because he has engaged with Jesus but not yet set out to become a follower?

Is he not far from the kingdom because his understanding of love of God and neighbour has yet to borne out in what he does?

Is he not far from the kingdom simply because Jesus presence is the kingdom and the scribe is with Jesus?

Is he not far from the kingdom because Jesus is anticipating the scribe’s death?

In whatever way this phrase is understood the question might be asked is being not far from the kingdom enough.

Jesus words definitely come across as an encouragement and affirmation to the scribe. There is hope in them – being not far from the kingdom is a good thing and this is something that we should all take hope in as well.

In trying to understanding the scribe’s supposed closeness to the kingdom looking at the scribes words may help to make things clearer. In his conversation with Jesus about the commandments identifies the heart of what it means to be in relationship with God. But in doing so he does not identify anything especially radical or new in terms of Jewish teaching.

He cites what is known as the Shema:

‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you 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.’

Alongside the levitical teaching:

‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

His understanding of this twofold commandment love of God and love of neighbour appears to be what means he is not far from the kingdom.

Yet it is neither his understanding nor even his personal enactment of these central tenets if the faith which will incorporate him into the kingdom.

The gospel of Mark is the good news of Jesus Christ so the message ultimately revolves around the work Jesus himself does, it is Jesus who mediates our coming into God’s kingdom. It is in and through him that we actually are drawn in.

Maybe in Jesus response we can hear the affirmation that the scribe is on the right track in understanding what the kingdom is about alongside the promise that whilst being near is great we do not have to achieve that last little bit ourselves – it comes to us as a gift from God.

The scribe is not far from the kingdom but he does not have to worry about getting there by himself – this is good news indeed, God will we draw him in.

In this way the passage carries a twofold message for us.

Being close to the kingdom, the rule of God, the coming kingdom, maybe even Jesus himself is something to be affirmed especially when it is expressed in the central tenets love God and love your neighbour. We live under God’s rule as best we can – loving God and one another.

Moreover, being close to the kingdom is a reminder that despite being close we are not in and that the good news is that God sent Jesus into the world so that we might be drawn fully into that kingdom and so no longer simply be not far but part of God’s reign and rule.

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