A Sermon from Sherborne
Preparing for the Kingdom
A sermon for Mattins at the Church of St Mary Magdalene, Castleton, preached on Sunday 4 November 2018 by the Reverend Hugh Bonsey, Associate Priest
What does it mean to be ready for the Kingdom? The scribe in this morning’s story from Mark [12.28-34] asks Jesus what is the greatest of the Commandments. He was not trying to trick Jesus, unlike the scribe in Matthew’s Gospel, and other scribes featured in earlier stories in Mark. The scribe here asked Jesus for important information, which he then fed back to Jesus in his own words. Jesus concluded that the scribe was ‘not far from the kingdom of God.’ (Mark 12.34).
I think that it is important for us to see the context in which this remarkable conversation took place. Jesus was in the temple in Jerusalem, the very heart of the Jewish faith. It would be under 40 years in the future that the whole structure of the temple was destroyed. All the burnt offerings and sacrifices were obliterated, never to return. By the time that the Gospels were written, temple worship was a thing of the past: it was history. The first Christians, who were Jews, needed to know the foundational beliefs and structure of their faith. What was the first commandment? Such a commandment would be the foundation for all others; everything would be coloured by what was proclaimed in the first commandment.
Today’s Gospel story took place a few days before the Lord’s Passion. We would describe the timing as the beginning of Holy Week. Jesus had entered the city on what we now call Palm Sunday. He entered the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers and drove them out. He taught in the temple and was challenged by those in authority. Therefore all of Jesus’ teaching was coming to a climax before he went to Mount Zion and shared the Last Supper with his disciples.
Jesus does not reply to the scribe in legal language, here in Mark’s Gospel, he recites the foundational belief of all Jews, which is said every day: the Shema, ‘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.’ These famous words come from the Book of Deuteronomy which we heard in the First Lesson this morning. (Deut. 6.4-5), but with the additional words ‘and with all your mind’. Jesus adds another commandment, this time from the Book of Leviticus, saying, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Lev. 19.18).
This view of Jewish life and faith was shared by others. In the first century before Christ, the great rabbi Hillel was asked by someone who was considering converting to Judaism to teach him the entire Torah, or Jewish Law, while standing on one leg. Hillel gave his famous reply, ‘That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.’
Jesus ties these great commandments together to make the point that to love God we must love our neighbour. It is thought that Jesus is the first person to link these two ways of thinking into a coherent structure, which forms the foundation of Christian living.
Some congregations recite the Shema every week. Progressive American Churches, such as the United Church of Christ, may recite the words every Sunday so that the children can learn them by heart – just as Jewish children do. We Anglicans recite the two Great Commandments at the beginning of our services of Holy Communion. The words will be very familiar here in Castleton. If you see Jewish men at prayer, they will attach special boxes to their foreheads, and their left arms (facing their hearts) called phylacteries. Inside the boxes are pieces of parchment, which display the words of the Shema.
But notice what the word ‘Shema’ means. It is Hebrew for the first word of the commandment – ‘Hear’. As often happens when we read scripture, we miss the urgency and the accuracy of what is being proclaimed. The command is not just to hear once, and then commit the experience to memory, which may be recalled from time to time. No. When Jesus replied to the scribe in our story, the word is written in the present tense imperative. Jesus is saying, ‘Keep on listening!’ or ‘Continue to hear!’
Therefore we must be alert and continuously relate the commandment to love God and neighbour in our lives.
I would like us to turn our attention to the scribe and what Jesus says to him. As I said at the beginning of my sermon, the conversation between Jesus and scribe was not hostile at all. The scribe wanted to know more of what Jesus was teaching for his own benefit and improvement. Jesus said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ (Mark 12.34). Before this statement, in his reply to the scribe’s enquiry, Jesus recites the Shema directly to him in the second person singular ‘You shall love the Lord your God …’
And yet, for all the positive and fruitful attitude of the scribe, and Jesus saying that he is not far from the Kingdom, the scribe is not actually in it. Why should this be? How should we react, bearing in mind that our own view of the Two Great Commandments might well be very similar to the scribe’s view? I am indebted to the Lutheran pastor Brian Stoffregen for the following observations: Was the scribe too ‘grown up’? Jesus had proclaimed that we need to enter the Kingdom as little children. (10.5). Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, (10.24-26), we heard about the rich man and his enormous problems with entering the Kingdom: he preferred his wealth. Perhaps the scribe was too attached to either wealth or his own innate abilities than to ‘turn his eternal future over to God’. Perhaps it was a lack of repentance: either a refusal to admit any wrong-doing, or an admittance that his life had been lived so badly that he couldn’t be helped and rehabilitated – to live a new life in the Kingdom. Also, the scribe may have understood salvation as being obedience to the law rather than submission to the forgiving and redeeming power of Christ. The scribe’s love for others was something to be discussed: it involved thought rather than action. He was talking about loving God, not hearing Jesus and becoming whole, through sharing his love with others.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, a Lutheran pastor in Tokyo, Japan, comments on the fact that the scribe is not yet in the Kingdom as Jesus’ Passion is still to be enacted. She says:
What remains? For all intents and purposes, at this point in the Gospel, all that remains is Jesus’ passion. Not an overthrowing of Israel’s faith, but an unanticipated fulfillment of it. Love of God and love of neighbor take their deepest expression in shed blood, the blood that is life itself.
I conclude with a quote from Professor William Loader, who is a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, who combines St Paul’s thoughts from his letters to the Galatians and Romans:
Loving God opens us up to the Spirit who pours love from God into our lives and brings that love as the fruit of the Spirit to others. (Gal. 5; Rom. 5.8).