Missed it by That Much — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

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.

Photo by Altaf Shah on Pexels.com

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…

Text Study for Mark 12:28-34 (Pt. 2); October 31, 2021

Commanded to Love

What does it mean to say that we as Jesus followers are “commanded” to love God and neighbor? How can Jesus (or God or Scripture) “command” an emotion? I have heard that question many times over the years of my parish ministry. Framed this way, Jesus’ words seem to be nonsense to twenty-first century ears and minds.

How can loving be a commandment? It’s a post-Kantian, Romantic question – at least in terms of the history of Western ideas. Immanuel Kant taught us that morality is about the rules that we would be willing to universalize. While Kant’s rule-based understanding of ethics is not the only option, it is a highly influential one.

Combine that with the Romantic (as in the philosophical and literary school of thought called Romanticism) notion that emotions are the essential marks of our humanity and that love is the primary human emotion, and we have a problem.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Of course, Jesus is not a Kantian moral philosopher. Nor is Jesus a Romantic poet. Our protests about rules and emotions are anachronistic at best. That means that we need to hear Jesus’ words in the Markan composition within something approaching an “original” framework if we want to make any sense of them at all.

Let’s think about the “commandments.” It’s not really helpful to understand the commandments are rules for living. It is more helpful to understand them as practices or disciplines or patterns of character-forming behaviors.

In modern Jewish usage, the word for commandment (“mitzvah”) often refers to a good deed or set of good deeds. That usage goes back to quite ancient documents, including the Jerusalem Talmud, which takes us back to within a century or so of the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Tzvi Freeman notes that the word may be related to an Aramaic verb meaning “to attach” or “to join.” The Aramaic word can mean companionship or personal attachment, Freeman observes. Thus, a mitzvah is not about a rule but rather about a relationship. “In this sense,” Freeman continues, “a mitzvah bundles up the person who is commanded and the Commander, creating a relationship and essential bond.”

Given this framework, Jesus’ reply to the scribe makes good sense. The foremost commandment (mitzvah) is about our relationship with God the Creator. The second most salient commandment is about our relationship with our neighbor. It is “like” the foremost commandment because both are about the relationships which define us as human beings.

I find the description of commandments as character-forming patterns of behavior to be the most helpful understanding of the term. When I think, for example, of the Ten Commandments (found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), I don’t think of these statements as ways in which God legislates the fun out of life. Instead, God gives commandments because they are good for us. I find it to be a rule of thumb in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures that God wants from us what is good for us.

Keeping the commandments is a way to practice the habits that form our character in a particular way. I would argue that God’s commandments are intended to form us into the fully authentic and joyful human beings God created us to be from the beginning. Freeman quotes a commentary on the commandments from a thirteenth-century Jewish author in Spain. “A person’s attitudes,” the commentator wrote, “are molded by his behavior.”

If a preacher were to use our text on Reformation Sunday (as I am proposing), then some time meditating and reflecting on the nature of God’s law would be in order. Martin Luther is often caricatured as saying that the Law is uniformly bad and is the “opposite” of the Gospel. That cannot be right, of course. After all, Luther spends the majority of both his Small and Large Catechisms expounding the Ten Commandments. If the Law were bad, why waste all that ink on it?

Luther reminded the Western Church that the Law is the result of our relationship with God, not the road to that relationship. As he reads the Ten Commandments in the Catechisms, for example, he sees the words of Deuteronomy 6:5 as the “Introduction” to the Commandments. “I am the Lord your God,” we read in that verse, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” It is only in light of that gracious act that the following commandments make any sense at all.

Therefore, Luther argues, it is faith that fulfills the commandments. By that he means that it is trust in that gracious relationship which God initiates which is the keeping of the Law. But even this trust in the relationship is not a “work,” something that we humans – in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves – can produce on our own.

Faith itself, the capacity to respond to God’s gracious gift, is also God’s gracious gift. “Thus, God’s promises give what the law demands,” Luther writes in The Freedom of a Christian¸ “so that everything may belong to God alone, both the commands and their fulfillment” (page 496). Jesus roots the covenant connection with God in relationship, not rules. The scribe agrees with that assessment and is, therefore, “not far from the Kingdom of God.”

This faith relationship, according to Luther, is far more than a pleasant connection. He describes three “powers” of that faith in The Freedom of the Christian. First, the gift of faith forms us for our loving union with God. Second, the gift of faith equips us to treat God as God – as Jesus would put it, loving God with the wholeness of heart, soul, mind, and strength. Third, the gift of faith unites us with Christ (see pages 496ff.).

To illustrate this third power of faith, Luther uses the metaphor union between the “bride” (my “soul”) and the Bridegroom, Christ. The working of this union is what Luther describes in many places as the “Joyous Exchange.” He puts it this way in The Freedom of the Christian: “Accordingly, the faithful soul can both assume as its own whatever Christ has and glory in it, and whatever is the soul’s Christ claims for himself as his own” (page 500).

Our trusting relationship with God is not something already within us that Jesus uses to build us up into perfection. In the words of Tuomo Mannermaa, faith is the presence of Christ in us. “Christ gives his person to us through faith, Mannermaa writes. “’Faith’ means participation in Christ, in whom there is no sin, death, or curse” (Kindle Locations 321-322). To put it more simply, Mannermaa notes, “Salvation is participation in the person of Christ” (Kindle Location 319).

Faith – the presence of and participation in the person of Christ – forms us for works of love. And works of love then further form us for faith. Have you ever noticed that the real “virtues” are self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating? By that I mean that the best way to be more trusting is to practice trusting. The best way to have more hope is to practice hoping. The best way to be more loving it to practice loving. The practices themselves form us more fully into the Christ within us.

This sounds a great deal like the understanding of commandments with which I began this post. A person’s attitudes are molded by their behavior. And a person’s behavior molds their attitudes as well. While the Law cannot bring us into relationship with God in Christ, Luther asserts, it can help us to grow deeper in that relationship. The Law can guide us to discipline ourselves for living. And it can guide us into fruitful ways to love our neighbor.

Jesus notes that the “second” commandment is somehow connected to the foremost. We can and likely will examine that idea in more detail downstream. But for now, let’s think about it in terms of a kind of descent. The ancient principle is that “like begets like.” The second commandment is the “offspring” of the foremost. Love for neighbor as oneself is the natural progeny of the trust in God that produces love for God.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul writes in Romans 5:1 (NRSV). He concludes that sentence at the end of verse five by noting that we have this peace with God “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” It won’t be a Reformation Day observance without some heavy-duty Paul-quoting, eh?

“God’s love” is a plenary genitive in this passage. It is both God’s love for us and our love for God. Not only has that love been poured into us through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is poured through us onto our neighbor. The second commandment is the offspring of the foremost commandment and is the expression of the presence of Christ in us – the clearest expression of our faith in Christ.

I’m not arguing that Jesus was a Lutheran and didn’t know it. I do hope, however, that Lutherans have a faithful way of talking about Jesus. That’s what theology is good for, after all – to bear witness to the Good News of God in Christ in ways that can make sense to people. Our love for neighbor is the result of our relationship with God in Christ.

Luther puts it this way in The Freedom of the Christian. “Therefore, I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor, because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ” (page 524, my emphasis).

In this time when the assertion of individual “rights” at the expense of the neighbor, the community, and Creation, has been raised to the level of an ultimate concern, a review of the Lutheran basis for love of neighbor might be a helpful thing. It should be clear that putting individual preference ahead of the needs of the neighbor cannot qualify as love for neighbor (or self, for that matter) according to Lutheran theological categories.

Luther’s “Golden Rule” is not “do unto others as you would have them to unto you.” Instead, Luther’s Golden Rule goes like this. In faith (that is, the presence of Christ in us) “in turn and mutually, we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us” (page 525, my emphasis).

That’s the real application of the “second” commandment in the life of the Jesus follower: do for your neighbor as Christ does for you.

References and Resources

Freeman, Tzvi. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1438516/jewish/Mitzvah.htm.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-4.

Wilson, Sarah Hinlicky. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-5.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.