Throwing Horseshoes in the Kingdom of God

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

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

We Don’t Know What We’re Asking

Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost | Mark 10:32-45

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

We Don’t Know What We’re Asking

The sons of Zebedee—you’ve got to keep an eye on them. Here they are wanting to be second and third in the new kingdom, sitting at the left and right hand of Christ, whatever that means, whatever the kingdom is, and whenever it comes. These two brothers, James and John, are putting on airs, assuming themselves to be closer to Jesus than the rest of the disciples. It’s not a good plan for winning friends.

Reliquary of Charlemagne
Reliquary of Charlemagne, Aachen Cathedral Treasury

The other ten members of the inner circle are not happy.

To get the full picture, we’ve got to go back and pick up a few verses. The lectionary, not immune to the modern trend of reading less and talking about it more, suggests we start with verse 35. The writer of this Gospel had a different notion.

Verse 32 is a better starting point. Now we have our passage beginning with Jesus predicting his death, just as in verse 45 our passage also ends with Jesus predicting his death. These are the Markan bookends of our story, and leaving off the beginning makes the ending seem to be nothing more than a footnote. To the contrary, these predictions are central to understanding what is going on. The disciples, Jesus’ closest friends, so badly misunderstand him that two of them are vying for front row seats on the bus to Calgary.

Jesus tells them quite plainly that he will be betrayed and killed. They choose to hear only the bits that match their own expectations: he is bringing the kingdom of God to pass. James and John reach for the gold, presuming on their intimacy with Jesus to demand that he give them whatever they ask, though what they ask is, unrealized to them, suicide.

Jesus tells the brothers that they do not know what they are asking—and they do not. They are thinking of sharing power and dominion. Jesus has just been telling all of them that this adventure does not go as they think, that it will, in fact, appear to end badly, and that there will be no throne they would recognize, no revolution they would comprehend, no kingdom as they understand kingdoms.

So who gets the front row seats? For whom are the honored positions to the left and right of the king reserved? It may be that we do not know, that they have not been named. Of course, it may be that we do know them after all—consider the two thieves crucified, one at Jesus’ left and one at his right.

Imagine the relief mingled with John’s shame as he stood that day watching Jesus die, realizing that these crosses to the left and right could have held different men.

In the novel Paper Towns, John Green writes on the theme of the limits of knowing another person, of how our knowledge of the people around us is skewed and limited by our own notions and perceptions. When we gaze at others, it is always through a glass darkly.

We also see God the same way, through a window that is too small, too dark, paned with old glass that waves and curves, changing the shape and color of what we think we see. All our explanations, our notions, our doctrinal clarity, these are nothing more than the field notes of explorers whose lenses were perhaps a little more polished or (it is sobering to consider) perhaps a little less so.

Our ideas about God are not God, though we are more likely to hold fast to our ideas. Our explanations of the kingdom of God are precious to us, so precious that we would rather repeat them, rather insist that other people agree with our explanations, than to set foot in the real kingdom of God that is all around us.

If we think otherwise, we are fooling ourselves. After all, are we better than James and John? They heard the words of Christ firsthand, and they still listened only to what they wanted to hear.

If we would be first in the kingdom that is God’s, it may be because we don’t know what we’re asking. If we would be first, we must begin by regarding ourselves as last.

Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles
Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles

We Knew Before We Asked

 

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Mark 10:17-31

It is sothe that synne is cause of all this peyne,
but al shal be wele, and al shall be wele, and all manner thing shal be wele.

It is truth that sin is the cause of all of this pain,
but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

—The Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich, c. 1416

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

We Knew Before We Asked

He knew the answer, but he asked the question anyway. It wasn’t casual. The fellow put some effort into the asking.

He ran to catch Jesus before he left on a journey, just to get an answer that he already knew. Maybe the young man had connections among the disciples and learned about their impending journey. Maybe he just came walking over the crest of a hill in time to see this bunch of people heading out on the road. Maybe he was simply so anxious that he started running.

At any rate, the Gospel tells us that he rushes up, kneels at Jesus’ feet, and asks what he must do to live forever. How do I get to heaven?

Jesus starts with the answer the young man is counting on—keep the commandments, follow the rules, do the right thing. And the man is happy to hear it, because he has always been a very decent sort of fellow. He must have been. We hear that Jesus looks at the young man, sees something in him, and loves him, not in the Jesus-loves-everybody way, but in a stand-out-of-the-crowd sort of way.

And then Jesus gives the young man an answer he does not want to hear. Go sell everything and give the money to the poor. Go let go of everything that ties you to this world. Go bet the farm on heaven, and then you can count on it.

Shock. Grief. Those are the fellow’s reactions. He goes away grieving, but nothing is said about running, not now.

He wanted to know what the ticket to heaven would cost. The answer was everything he didn’t want to let go.

Julian of Norwich
Statue of Julian of Norwich, holding Revelations of Divine Love

In the fourteenth century, a woman we know as Julian of Norwich entered a small room attached to a wall of a church, and there she lived for years, an anchoress, letting go of the world and holding only to God. She wrote down her experience of a series of ‘shewings’ or ‘revelations’—visions, ecstatic experiences of God. Her writings are known as The Revelations of Divine Love.

Perhaps the best known quote from her writings is this one: “…it is well, it is well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It is less known that in her vision these are the words of Jesus, comforting her in her contemplation that God would permit the existence of sin.

Somehow, within that small room, she experienced the kingdom of God.

It’s hard, Jesus tells the ones who stay with him. It’s hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples didn’t seem to understand why, but that is no comfort to us: the disciples in this Gospel do not seem to understand very much at all.

What is this kingdom of God, and why is it so hard to enter? Why is it especially hard for a rich person?

Maybe it is the luggage limitation. It’s hard to walk if you are holding onto everything you have, and it’s hard to go anywhere when you’re attached to the place where you are. Maybe it is the limits of our imagination. It is hard to set our minds on something we don’t even understand.

The kingdom of God—what is that? When is it? Is the kingdom a place, a real walk around sort of place? Is it a state of mind? Is it heaven, one day, some day, some place? Is it present, like the laughter of a child?

No one can do it, no one can get in, Jesus tells them. It is impossible for mortals, he says, but it is not impossible for God.

For God all things are possible.

Like those early disciples, we miss the point. We think we must either hold onto something or give it up, or do the right thing and avoid the wrong one, and surely in one way or the other we can find our way into the kingdom of God. We do not even understand where it is, but we think that if we walk long enough, we can get there.

We have all the world, life itself, riches unmeasured, and we cannot get into the kingdom of God. One does not get in with a good deed, or pick the lock with remorse. There are no gates, no doors, no tent flaps. Opening a door that does not exist is as preposterous as shoving a camel through the eye of a needle.

We can’t go inside because the kingdom of God is already all around us. We can’t buy a ticket because they are free. And none of it, nothing of the kingdom of God, can be attained. It can only be received, a gift, and neither begging nor earning have anything to do with it.

The kingdom of God is a gift, the grace of a God who is present despite all things, a God who opens doors where there are none, a God who will make all things well.

Julian of Norwich Window

As If

Third Sunday after Pentecost  |  Mark 4:26-34

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Grasses

The more I gaze into the face of headline Christianity, the more I understand why people reject anything that smacks of faith. Listening to a politician using faith-speak to galvanize voters (right or left wing, though usually the right—this bird flies in circles, it seems) is enough to repel any thoughtful person.

There are some wonderful public voices in the Christian world. While I am not Catholic, Pope Francis often gives me joy. Rachel Held Evans’ journey has resonated with many Christians as they examine their own beliefs. People like Nadia Bolz-Weber (to the extent that there is anyone like Nadia Bolz-Weber) are inspiring (and entertaining.)

Most of Christianity is quieter, more in keeping with the part of the iceberg that is under the water. You don’t see it, but that massive body of ice crystals beneath the surface is the only reason any ice rises up at all.

Jesus told parables. Stories, illustrations thrown alongside our lives to help us think. The kingdom of God is like seed scattered on the ground, he said, growing into a field of grain. The kingdom of God is like mustard seed, he said, tiny and almost unnoticeable, yet growing into a plant somewhere between knee high and over one’s head, depending on which of the nearly countless sources one reads to try to learn what kind of plant Jesus meant.

There is nothing spectacular about grain growing, nothing that would make a front page article or a popular tweet, except that from it we get the bread that we eat. Nothing about mustard is impressive—tiny seeds and a plant that may be large enough to shade birds but that is nothing more than a shrub at best.Maple seeds

Scattered, tiny seeds. An unremarkable plant. Such is the kingdom of God, Jesus says. What a remarkable journey, though, from germination to plant. We pass by each day without noticing the process until one day the field is full of grain, or flowers have grown from what looked like nothing.

The kingdom of God—what is with that expression anyway? Do we really imagine God as a radiant old king, someone made in our image, sitting on a throne, gazing down at the disc of the world? Many have. Many still do. It is an image that says more about our limited imagination than it does about God.

With bird feederThe small things, the things we overlook, those are what tell us about God. A child who knows kindness grows into an adult with a good heart; that is of God. A victim offers forgiveness, regardless of the effect on the offender, lightening the burden and opening a new future for the one who forgives; that is of God. Small things and things that cannot even be seen, these are where God is present.

Life grows around us, even without our notice. The universe takes the smallest things and makes something of them. We breathe, and a plant uses the carbon dioxide we exhale, growing from what seems nothing. The world is connected in ways we barely understand. On the other hand, our greatest efforts are sometimes the most harmful: scars on the planet that one can see from space, scars within us that God can see from anywhere.

Food for a hungry neighbor, kindness toward a child, a sense of gratitude for being alive—these things matter to God, even when we do not see how such things may change the world. From small things, unseen and unnoticed, come the beauty and wonder around us.

“The kingdom of God is as if…,” the parable begins. As if what?

In field of grasses