Read Mark 12:28-34.
“And Jesus, observing that he answered wisely, said to him, ‘You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34a, my translation).
It was Major League baseball player and manager Frank Robinson who first said, “Close don’t count in baseball. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” The quote appeared in the July 31, 1973, issue of Time magazine (http://www.espn.com/classic/000728frankrobinsonadd.html).
The gospel of Mark works like a labyrinth. Have you ever walked a labyrinth – as a spiritual discipline, for example? When you walk a labyrinth, you can see the “goal” of the walk at all times. The center of the labyrinth is completely visible, as is the entrance/exit to the labyrinth.
A labyrinth is not a maze. The purpose of a maze is to cut you off from knowing your location. During the Halloween season in our part of the country, we often have the opportunity to wander in “corn mazes.” These are paths in cornfields designed to give the wanderers the scary sense of being lost amidst the tall stalks. Between the rustling of the stalks and the complexity of the maze, it can be a disorienting and discounting experience.
A labyrinth is disorienting in another way. Just when you think you’ve gotten to the center of the installation, the path takes you back to the beginning again – sort of like life. That’s what the composer of Mark’s gospel is doing at the end of this reading. The composer has gotten us nearly to the end of the story. But for a moment we find ourselves back at the beginning.
“The right time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has drawn near,” Jesus declares in Mark 1:15, “change your perspective on the world and put your trust in the Good News!” (my translation).
Of course, this proclamation takes us to the very first words of the Markan composition. We hearers know that this “good news” is “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” We have walked all the way to Mark 12 only to find ourselves right back at the first seven words of the Gospel.
The scribe commends Jesus for getting an “A” on his theology exam. Jesus declares that love for God and love for neighbor comprise, as a matched set, the foremost of the commandments. “Good answer! Good answer!” the scribe replies. This dual invitation to whole-person love for God and neighbor is worth more than “all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
The scribe is “not far from the Kingdom of God” in that assessment. But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. “Not far” is apparently not close enough.
In the great old sitcom, “Get Smart,” secret agent Maxwell Smart (played brilliantly by Don Adams) uses a number of running gag lines to cover up his various mistakes. Whenever Smart has a massive fail, he will turn to his colleague or his superior and declare with an absolutely straight face, “Missed it by that much!” Usually, the line is accompanied by Smart’s thumb and index finger about an inch apart. Of course, he “missed it” by much more than that.
I have to wonder if that’s part of the point the Markan composer is making here. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, but not in the Kin(g)dom of God. The scribe may have missed it by that much. But, to pile up the cliches and catchphrases even further, when it comes to the Kin(g)dom of God, perhaps a miss is as good as a mile.
But what can this all mean for us? Does the Markan composer want us to know that this Kingdom business has no margin for error? Losing a basketball game by 2 points or 200 is still a loss. Do we walk away wondering if we, too, have missed the Kin(g)dom by that much?
No, I don’t think that’s the issue here – either for the Markan composer or for us. Remember, the Markan composition is like a labyrinth. When you walk a labyrinth, you get close to the center at least once before you’re sent back to the outside again. The key is to keep on walking. It would seem that this is precisely what the scribe did not do.
Jesus bested the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees in a series of public debates about Hebrew scriptures. The scribe liked what he heard. It’s not clear if he liked the public humiliation of the competition or the content of Jesus’ teaching, or both. It doesn’t really matter. He agreed with Jesus and commended the excellence of his teaching.
And then he went on his way.
I served in a congregation where one fellow visited more often than most of the members attended. He was complimentary of my sermons, pleasant at fellowship time, and even made the odd financial contribution. But he resolutely refused any and all overtures regarding membership in the congregation.
One day, I decided to cater to my curiosity. I bought him a cup of coffee and asked the obvious question. Why don’t you join the congregation? Is there something wrong with us? “No, Pastor,” he said with a smile. “I like you all just fine. I enjoy the sermons. I appreciate the music. I feel welcomed by folks.”
This wasn’t helping me. “Why, then,” I asked, “don’t you want to become part of the congregation?”
“Well, you see, Pastor, if I join, then you folks will expect things of me,” he smiled. “And I’m not interested in that.” At least he was honest. For that I was grateful. And our conversation had no effect on his attendance.
It would seem that actually being “in” the Kin(g)dom of God cannot be a spectator sport. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. It would seem the scribe (and my pleasant spectator) missed it by that much. But what did they miss?
God commands what is good for us. Full stop. No exception or equivocation. If we are “commanded” to love God with our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strengths, then that must be what’s good for us. God longs for complete communion with you and with me and with all of Creation. That’s what that foremost commandment means.
The scribe was that close to full communion with the Creator of the universe. And then he went on his way. At least the rich man in Mark 10 had the good sense to be grieved about missing out. Our friend, the sensible scribe, didn’t even notice what he was missing. He didn’t even bother with a follow-up question.
This foremost of the commandments contains within it an astonishing assertion. God desires, God longs for, God yearns for complete communion with you, with me, and with every bit of Creation. God so desires that complete communion that God comes to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As far as God is concerned, nothing in all of Creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God only commands what is good for us. And God only commands what God will do through us. Complete communion is a mutual relationship. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God sends Jesus into my heart, soul, mind, and strength. That’s what makes this mutual relationship possible.
Of course, God doesn’t take hostages. God doesn’t capture slaves. I have the “freedom” to respond like the scribe – make a pithy observation and then wander off on my own. It’s a terrible sort of freedom, this freedom to walk away from God, but it’s real.
That being said, I don’t think God ever stops pursuing, inviting, and wooing us back into the complete communion with God for which we are created. I wish the scribe had seen what was staring him in the face when he was so near to the Kin(g)dom. But I also believe that all such scribes among us – starting with me – are the focus of God’s unending and steadfast love.
Of course, this foremost commandment is a two-sided coin. God commands what is good for us. God commands what God will do through us. And what God does through us is what God does to us. Since God loves us — heart, soul, mind, and strength – God loves our neighbor in the same way. And God invites us, through Jesus, to be active partners in that loving.
This, of course, is precisely where my pleasant spectator understood the Christian gospel very well. Complete communion with God results in complete communion with whoever and whatever God loves. So, we are invited to love our neighbors as we ourselves are loved. As Martin Luther puts it, we are called to love our neighbors as Christ loves us.
I don’t have to work out for you what that means for you. I do know that this flip side of the commandment coin can be hardest to implement with those who are closest to us. It’s with those who are near to us that it’s easiest to miss it by that much. So, this loving business is daily effort and discipline.
That takes us back to the labyrinth. No matter where we’re at on this journey of following Jesus, the first key is to keep on walking. Sometimes we’re closer to the center. Sometimes we’re farther away. But let’s resist the temptation to be merely spectators. Let’s not walk off the field and watch from the sidelines. Let’s keep asking questions and taking steps.
Maxwell Smart has another running gag. He suspects some bad news. “Don’t tell me I fell off the horse,” he tells Agent 99. “You fell off the horse,” she says. “I asked you not to tell me that!” He replies. Mark urges us to listen to what we’re told and to keep walking.
Even if we’ve asked him not to tell us that…