Throwing Horseshoes in the Kingdom of God

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost | Mark 12:28-34

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Throwing Horseshoes in the Kingdom of God

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.” That is what Jesus told a scribe in this story. Most of us think that it was praise or encouragement, but if Jesus was praising the man for his answer, why did those words shut everyone else down?

“And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.” It isn’t because the man’s response was so brilliant. It isn’t because the crowd thought Jesus was encouraging anyone.

It makes more sense that Jesus was cautioning the man, warning him, perhaps even rebuking him. That would explain why no one else dared to ask anything else.

Which commandment comes first of all? That was the question. It was reasonable, even commendable, if the man was genuine in his inquiry. Of course, it may be that he came like the others before him, baiting Jesus with questions, a hook hidden in each one.

The answer Jesus gave is famous. He quoted the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6, words every Jewish man, woman and child could have recited, Shema Yisra’el Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.

שְׁמַע  יִשְׂרָאֵל  יהוה  אֱלֹהֵינוּ  יהוה  אֶחָד

[is one ← the LORD ← our God ← the LORD ← O Israel ← Hear]

ἄκουε Ισραηλ κύριος ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν κύριος εἷς ἐστιν

Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.

Jesus went on to quote the next line, and you shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, except that he added something—all your mind—followed by words from Leviticus 19:18, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

The response is fascinating. The scribe, hearing Jesus answer him, repeated the part that Jesus got wrong. Did you notice? He corrected Jesus, repeating the Shema but leaving out the all your mind.

He did get something right, though. He told Jesus that to love God and to love one’s neighbor is greater than burnt offerings and sacrifices. The fellow understood what the prophets had been proclaiming for hundreds of years before Christ came—the old notions of animal sacrifice were for the benefit of a primitive people who were only able to understand the world in that way. Over time, enlightened thinkers within Judaism understood that they had no need to offer the blood as an atonement. All God required was an honest and contrite heart. All the rest, all the rules, was always for us.

Christ Pantocrator - Mosaic from the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
Christ Pantocrator – Mosaic from the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

It is fascinating. This scholar had followed the trajectory of Jewish faith, moving past the old rituals of sacrifice to the deeper understanding of spiritual renewal and grace, but he could not move past the letter of the formulaic confession that was the Shema. He knew the words, but he could not find the meaning.

He answered well, but he was missing something essential. He was playing horseshoes with Jesus, and he thought his own answer was a ringer. It turned out he missed after all.

And Jesus tells him that he is not far from the kingdom.

Not far, but that is bracing news to a man who is sure he has arrived. It is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. This scribe knew the scripture perfectly. Jesus knew what it meant.

How about us? It might be that we’re still out there offering sacrifices. We sacrifice fulfillment to busy-ness, true wealth for money, Facebook likes for friendship. We sacrifice understanding to knowledge, and we limp as best we can around the altar of being right.

Oh, the altar of rightness. How much have we sacrificed there? Friendship? Marriages? Maybe just the opportunity to be kind to someone?

It is easier to be right than good, or kind, or merciful. It is easier to be right than it is to love.

Jesus added something, the scribe knew—love the Lord with all your mind. The temerity of it, adding something to scripture.

All your mind, he said.

Think about it.

El Greco's painting - Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple