Not far from the Kingdom
“You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk 12:34). Perhaps the most favourable words elicited by an interlocutor of our Lord in this section of St Mark’s Gospel. The scribe asks, apparently without hostility, which commandment is the first, and merits this word of praise when he wholeheartedly affirms the answer. Praise it may be, but note its negative form: you are not far from the kingdom of God. What still separates him from the Kingdom?
It’s helpful to consider a lectionary passage displaced by a feast last week: the question of the rich man. His request too is marked by earnestness and an interest in law, albeit couched in a more practical idiom: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk 10:17). The contours of the answers are also comparable, presenting the Decalogue in some form. The explicit focus in the rich-man’s case being the concrete reiteration of the second tablet – love of neighbour – whilst for the scribe the emphasis is a Deuteronomic elucidation of the first – love of God.
The account of the rich man is different, however, in that the inadequacy of his spiritual response is plainly revealed: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor… At that saying, his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful” (Mk 10:21-22). There is no question of an intellectual defect: he knows the law, he knows that it is Christ, the Good Teacher to whom he must go for eternal life, yet his will balks at the cost of discipleship. The most basic act of the will is to love — the rich man lacks charity.
What about the scribe’s deficiency? I think we must look forward to Friday’s Gospel: “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David?… David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” (Mk 12:35,37). The Scribes, and indeed the disciples, have not grasped who Jesus is. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf” (John 5:39). Even those coming to him with a suspicion of his Messiahship, see merely a Son of David, not one who is Lord even over David, not one who is “above all rule and authority… above every name”, and under whose feet “God has put all things” (cf. Eph. 1:21-22). A first answer to our question then might be that the scribe lacks faith, since he has not confessed the Lordship of Jesus. A neat classification perhaps, but the scribe’s response deserves further scrutiny.
“You have truly said that He is one… and to love him with all the heart… and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is much more than all holocausts and sacrifices” (Mk 12:33). Notice how “and” is used. He asked for the “first” commandment, a question warranting a single answer, yet he offers this conjunctive response. “You are right, Teacher”, yet he does not realise just how right the Divine Teacher is. Indeed, it is only later that the Lord himself demonstrates the answer. The liturgical calendar almost suits my purposes here: tomorrow, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, is traditionally Corpus Christi, though it’s transferred to the Sunday in this country. In that feast we find the answer. “A new commandment I give to you… as I have loved you… you also love one another.” (Jn 13:34) Only in Christ’s Eucharistic self-gift do we see the full unification of love of God and neighbour: in holy communion we are united to our Saviour and to his mystical body through a single act of love. Just as the disciples on the road to Emmaus only recognised Christ at the breaking of the bread, so too is it beyond this scribe’s powers, unless he know the cruciform pattern of Divine Love, to do anything more than juxtapose the two great commandments. It is intimate communion with the crucified second-person of the Trinity that he awaits, and therein lies the only way to the kingdom of God, for Christ himself is “the Way” (Jn 14:6).
If we are not to be merely competent scribes “not far from the kingdom”, but rather “scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven”, then we must, as the Lord bids us, “bring out treasure both old and new” (cf. Matt. 13:52). Only the power of Christ’s creative love could ever bring forth something really new, Christ who “make[s] all things new” (Apoc. 21:5). The scribe was almost correct to say that the two great commandments are much more than “all holocausts and sacrifices”; all but one, the Lord’s “once for all sacrifice”, the blood of which sealed a “new and eternal covenant”, that covenant through which we receive the forgiveness of sins, and the grace to become full citizens with the saints in the kingdom of God.
Image: The Last Supper, in an initial N. Milanese, school, circ. 1500. 7 x 71/8 in.Our Saviour Jesus Christ: Miniatures of the life of Christ: 15th-16th centt. (wikimedia commons)
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