Not far from the Kingdom

Today’s Gospel reading (Mk 12.28-34) contains one of Jesus’ most famous teachings: his summary of the Law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.” It’s a good and helpful teaching that provides the lens through which Christians have interpreted the Law of Moses ever since. But this isn’t what struck me upon reading the text this morning. My interest was piqued instead by Jesus’ interaction with his questioner at the end of the story.

The man is a scribe, someone whose job it is to interpret religious law. This is a party that is normally one of the religious authorities that opposes Jesus and tries to trap him. But here, his question is in earnest. He asks it after being impressed by how Jesus answered other questions. And when Jesus provides his summary, the man is pleased with this interpretation of the Law. But here is where it gets interesting to me. The text says, “When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”

What does Jesus mean here? What does it mean to be “not far” from the Kingdom?

I was immediately reminded of Luke 17, when Jesus says: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (The Greek could equally mean “the kingdom of God is within you.”)

The Kingdom is among us and within us, and yet this man who accepts Jesus’ teachings is still on the outside looking in. He’s “not far” but not there yet. What might this mean?

As I pondered this, the words of the Beatitudes came to mind:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Who are the citizens of God’s Kingdom? The poor in spirit (in Luke’s version, the poor, full stop), those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.

Continuing on with the Sermon on the Mount, we can add: those who are salt and light in a bland and dark world, those who are committed to repentance and reconciliation, who don’t lust after what (or whom) they don’t have, whose yes is yes and no is no, and who forgive and even love their enemies. It is people like these whose righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees.

Likewise, in this lenten season, we are rightly reminded that the observance God truly wants from us is “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the straps of the yoke, to free the oppressed,” to feed the hungry, welcome and house the homeless, clothe the naked, and not to hide from our families.

And perhaps this is why the scribe who accepts Jesus’ teaching is “not far from the Kingdom,” but not yet within it. It is one thing to accept a teaching as true; it is quite another to live it. 

May we all be inspired today to live as citizens of God’s Kingdom, for the Kingdom of God is among us and within us.

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