Pastoral Message – October 31, 2021
In today’s Gospel passage, the scribe asks Jesus what is the “first” or “most important” commandment. Jesus responds by reinforcing the most fundamental belief of the Jewish faith. Known as the “shema” prayer, it is found in Deuteronomy and has been recited twice each day by practicing Jews for thousands of years: “Listen, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your might.”
Loving one’s neighbor was also a widely known requirement from Hebrew scripture. Shortly before the time of Jesus, a noted rabbi tried to sum it using words that foreshadow Jesus: “What you would not want done to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the essence of the law. Everything else is mere commentary on it.” Love God, love one another. Very, very simple to understand and to agree with; very difficult to live.
By reciting this prayer each day, all Jews clearly knew God’s word. But, merely having knowledge of God’s word or law isn’t enough. The scribe certainly knew God’s law. He and his colleagues were the teachers of Israel. Yet, in their encounters with Jesus, they don’t always seem to act in a manner that is consistent with God’s word. This attitude remains common today in the way that people treat Jesus. So often, we think that it is sufficient to know what Jesus said, but not to invite Him into our lives so that we can act differently because we know Him.
The scribe agrees with Jesus’ answer and even commends Jesus for His response. Then Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” If we understand “not far” to mean “close,” it seems as though Jesus is saying that the scribe is a good man who, unfortunately is not going to make it into the kingdom. When I was growing up, we had an expression, “Close, but no cigar.” Except in horseshoes, you didn’t win anything for being close. Being close is of little consolation when you “just miss” hitting a pitch or “just miss” spending eternity with God.
There are many people like the scribe who know Jesus and may even agree with Him, yet still refuse to be transformed by Him. Unfortunately, getting into God’s kingdom is more than passing knowledge or even agreement. The problem is often not the intellectual knowledge of what is required, but the emotional connection to fulfilling those requirements. Many of us are eager to know what is required, but fewer of us are anxious and eager to carry out what is required. Great knowledge of God’s law alone only brings one near, not into, God’s kingdom. Mere knowledge can be used for all kinds of misguided purposes. Knowing your Bible isn’t proof of salvation. The devil and his demons know the Bible but it doesn’t save them! God wants us to use our mind not for our pride but for his glory.
But, surely if we not only know the law, but also agree with it, we should be fine for getting into the kingdom, right? The scribe not only knew God’s law, he also agreed with it; but that is where he stopped. Though he agreed with God’s law on a surface level, he didn’t allow it to transform him. His interest was intellectual, not spiritual. He agreed with Jesus’ answer but did not go on down the path to actually living that answer. Christianity is not all about doctrine and theology. It is about passion and action. The scribe seems to be approaching Jesus and the law as objects of study rather than an objects of worship. However, God’s law is not to be studied as much as it is to be applied. John Wesley once said, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
Thus, knowing and even agreeing with God’s law doesn’t save. It’s takes action. The difference between being near and being in the kingdom of God is simple, but not easy. It comes down to this: who is Jesus to you? Is Jesus simply someone you know, like, or agree with or is He your savior? Do you simply admire Him for what he taught or do you really love Him for who He is?
It’s great to know about God and the importance of His commandments. It’s also a great blessing to agree with His Word. In both cases, like the scribe, you will be “not far from the Kingdom of God.” However, without a greater commitment, you will never actually enter the kingdom. The kingdom awaits only those who act to be transformed by the Word and are inspired to live out the Good News of Jesus Christ each and every day.