LCC pastors' conference
Even a casual reader of the Gospels can spot the difference between the Gospel of John and the synoptic Gospels. The long addresses by Jesus, the relative scarcity of miracle accounts and of course the language itself soon sets it apart from Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Naturally, those of us who are in the vocation of preaching on the Gospels work more carefully with them, and so we also recognize that there are difference that set apart Mark from Matthew and Luke as well. Matthew and Luke both provide accounts that describe the conception and birth of Jesus. Both Gospels provide accounts of events that occurred after the resurrection. And of course, Matthew and Luke share common material that is not found in Mark, such as Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer.
Mark is different. And when you begin looking a little closer you find that it is a quirky Gospel, when compared with Matthew and Luke. Mark provides no infancy account for Jesus at the beginning of his Gospel. He just jumps right into things with John the Baptist and his ministry. His ending is certainly unique. Every discernible criterion indicates that the longer endings are not original. But that leaves you with a Gospel that ends with the words, “for they were afraid.” Not exactly what we expect.
Mark has been described as a passion account with a prologue because one third of the Gospel deals with the events of Holy Week. And yet while Mark includes fewer individual pericopes, the ones that he does relate are in fact usually longer than Matthew and Luke – our text is a case in point of this.
And then there are the unique features not found in Matthew and Luke. Only Mark tells us about the spitting and touching of the tongue as Jesus heals the man with a speech impediment in chapter 7. Only Mark tells about the two stage healing of the blind man in chapter 8 who reports after the first stage that he see what looks like trees walking.
The same thing is found in two accounts in which Jesus interacts with someone – we hear something unique only in Mark. In chapter 10 we hear about Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man, and only Mark tells us that Jesus “looking at him, loved him.”
And then in our text tonight we hear about Jesus’ interaction with the scribe during Holy Week. Here, only Mark provides the scribe’s very positive response to Jesus’ answer. And only Mark tells us about Jesus’ intriguing comment, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is of course the central feature of Jesus’ teaching. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus begins his ministry by going into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Jesus announces that the reign of God is present in his person as he turns back the forces of Satan, sin and death.
That work of bringing God’s saving reign is nearing its critical moment as Jesus is in Jerusalem during Holy Week. He has been facing an onslaught of attacking questions from groups as diverse as the Pharisees, the Herodians and the Sadducees. We learn that one of the scribes came who had heard them disputing with one another. We are told he could see that Jesus had been answering them well. Here was something different. It was not frustration at the inability to trap Jesus, but instead an appreciation for what Jesus had been saying.
And so the scribe asks in our text, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Our Lord responds with his expected and well known summary of the two tables of the Ten Commandments as he said: “The most important is, ‘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.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Jesus takes all of the Torah – something that had generated a massive oral law which sought to explain and apply it to life – and boils it down to two points: Love God with all that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself. And then the scribe responded enthusiastically that Jesus was correct. He said, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
We learn that when Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Not far from the kingdom of God. Clearly the scribe was on the right track. But he wasn’t there. And our location at this conference is a reminder that being not far away and actually being there are very different things. The United States border is not far from here. In fact, when people who knew that I was going to speak to a pastors’ conference of the Lutheran Church – Canada have asked about where in Canada I was going, I felt rather silly telling them Niagara Falls. After all that’s barely Canada!
But while we may not be far from the United States, that distance makes all the difference in the world. When I agreed to come and speak at this conference, it meant that I had a get a new passport. Mine had expired and I hadn’t used it in a long time. I hadn’t been to Canada since my college years at Concordia College, Ann Arbor, MI. At that time you could drive across from Detroit into Windsor with no need of a passport. But of course, the world has changed, and now without a passport the fact that I am not far from the U.S. border doesn’t make any difference if I want to get back home from here.
The scribe understood what the Torah was all about. The genuineness of his answer no doubt indicates that he really wanted to love God with all that he was and love his neighbor as himself. Yet Jesus is clear that this alone left him outside the kingdom of God. It meant that he had not received the saving reign of God.
The same thing is true for Christians today. You know this. You preach it every Sunday to the members of your congregation. You preach that the way of the law – the way of doing – cannot produce fellowship with God. It can’t because they don’t; they can’t. You declare to others that they are curved in on themselves; that they love themselves instead of God and neighbor.
But as those who still carry the burden of the old man it is an unpleasant word that needs to be addressed to you as well. You don’t love God with all that you are, for you love things and so you grumble that don’t get paid more as a pastor. You love what the world defines as success, and so you make decisions that are gauged on the basis of how they will be received, rather than on their fidelity to God’s Word. You don’t love your neighbor as yourself – not even the neighbor who lives in your own house, your own family. You act towards them in selfish and hurtful ways.
The scribe’s answer left him not far from the kingdom of God. But that distance was the difference between salvation and condemnation. You must look at your life and confess the same thing. Your love of self over God and neighbor leaves you in sin. If unaddressed it leaves you cut off from the God. There is only one way to close the distance – to return to the kingdom of God. That way is to repent, and then in faith to move on to the second half of our text.
There, Jesus speaks about the Christ and how the Holy Spirit through David had described him as David’s son who is in fact David’s Lord. He describes the Christ as the One seated at the right hand of God. The Christ is David’s son, and yet he is so much more.
In Mark’s Gospel, Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ. Then Mark goes on to tell us, “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Jesus is the Christ, David’s son who is also David’s Lord because he is God’s Son. He entered this world as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
He loved God with all that he was. He loved his neighbor as himself. In fact he loved you more than himself because he sacrificed himself on the cross in order to win you forgiveness for all of the ways you fail to love God and neighbor. He declared that, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
By his death Jesus ransomed you from sin – he won forgiveness for you. And by his resurrection from the dead he defeated death. He began the resurrection of the Last Day. Through baptism you have shared in the saving death of Jesus the risen Lord. And because of baptism you know that you will be raised too. You look for the return of Jesus Christ who will transform your lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
This is the Good News by which you live in the present. And though perfect love of God in body and soul will not take place until the resurrection of the Last Day, already now through the work of the Spirit we seek to love God above all things. We seek to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus’ life of service and sacrifice for us becomes our model and pattern. As our Lord told the disciples: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
This is not something that we can accomplish on our own. It is not even something that we can fully do at all times. But with faith in the Christ who is David’s son and David’s Lord we now approach this altar. We come in repentance seeking forgiveness for the sins we have committed. We come seeking food by which the new man in us is fed and nourished. For through the true body and blood of Christ, the Spirit sustains and strengthens us in faith so that we can return to the world as the forgiven children of God who seek to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves.