The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s143g06 Sunday 31 5/11/2006
'you are not far from the kingdom' Mark 12.34
It might be stating the obvious but perhaps the obvious needs to be stated occasionally - that here Jesus commends this scribe. Jesus recognises good when he sees it - he acknowledges good when he hears it, as he does here.
It is therefore instructive to examine the words that result in this commendation.
The scribe asserts three things:
Firstly, that God is one and we must love God;
Secondly, we must love our neighbour, and
Thirdly that this is more important than what we give to God.
What is 'this'? The scribe does not say 'these are' - implying both the commands - to love God and neighbour - so 'this' really implies the second the love of neighbour.
What we give to God whole burnt offerings and sacrifices (in Old Testament terminology) or our time, talents and treasure (in terms of New Testament terminology) both of these might well be a demonstration of our love for God, our adherence to the first of these. Jesus perceives in the answer that the scribe gave an appreciation that God primarily wants us to get on with our neighbours, and that what we give to God is of secondary importance.
What we give to God will not change the world in the slightest. It is not as if God is withholding things, waiting for us to give the appropriate gift for God to give more. God has given us what we have already, and it is up to us to make the best use of it, for the benefit of us and of all.
Patients in hospital pray to get well so that they can leave, which is fair enough, but the skills of the doctors, nurses and other therapists are there for us to make the most use of, for our benefit as well as others. The most use we make of those around us in a hospital, means that we will get better all the quicker and they can move on to others, to assist them.
So I have difficulty with prayers for peace as if God can do something to stop people's conflicts. I'm not suggesting that we ought to stop praying for peace, but I do want to say that God has done everything possible to enable us to live in peace with our brothers and sisters not the least of which is that there is a command to do this. It is entirely futile to think that peace will come when those who are fighting get their own way that others will believe in their terms, worship in their traditions, and live the same way as they do. They want peace only on their terms. If the parties to a conflict pray that God will bring peace, then perhaps God wants them to hear and act on the prayer themselves.
The only possibility for a better world is when we start concentrating on what we do for others, and if we lament that it seems that 'the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm' (Zephaniah 1.12) we must realize that this is a call to action to do something ourselves.
And the thing that we have to do is not to seek the preservation of the Anglican Church or our small part of it, for again this focuses on us and others and our giving to God. The world is unlikely to be much affected if our parish or our denomination 'bites the dust'. Indeed it is a mute point if God would really be fussed. The world is likely to be more affected by what we give or not give, particularly in terms of the dignity we accord to other people who are different to us. It is this that is more likely to interest God as well.
And I want to say that it is this perception that brings us close to the kingdom as the scribe is whom Jesus' commends in our gospel for today.
If we continue to regard others who don't come to our church as expendable they are going to hell anyway then we will be no closer to the kingdom than before. However if we regard others as equally sacred as ourselves, we are much more likely to treat all people with dignity and respect, and we might find that this is the kingdom we are seeking.
When Jesus says to this scribe: 'you are not far from the kingdom' he points us to a perception that the kingdom is actually realizable. In one sense with the Cross and Resurrection - the kingdom has already come. Theologians call this 'realized eschatology' in other words we are living in the kingdom. Yet for all this has happened, evil still pervades our world.
If we see that the realisation of the kingdom now no longer depends on God, but on our 'loving of neighbour' and that God in Christ has done everything to command us to love, to allow us to love, and to empower us to love and all we have to do is do it.
The outpouring of the Spirit at the first Pentecost is a wonderful example of this. The Spirit is poured out on the first apostles, and this enabled them to speak the languages of the hearers. So often in the Church we have had our education programs to teach the people in the pews the theological language of the Church and in doing so we have got it completely round the wrong way. The Spirit enables us to understand others even to 'speaking the language' of those about us a very potent way of trying to love others. The Church has seemed to want others to show their love for God by understanding her and her language. Guess what is the more important?
And our emphasis on teaching the people in the pews the language of theology and the Church means that we haven't even started to begin to listen to those who have not yet darkened our doors, to try to understand them and to speak in their terms. They are entirely lost to us yet we think that we are loving our neighbours?
Jesus recognises the good in this scribe particularly in his perception that it was most important to love others - and Jesus recognises the good in us especially when we are about the business of trying to understand others and speak to them in their own terms.
And I think that this highlights the importance of lay people. We often think that the job of the Church is done primarily by the church officials. The bishops, priest and deacons, or whatever a particular tradition may call them. It is my habit to wear a 'dog-collar' all the time, but this often means people think that I come with a religious message to impart a church doctrine to expound, defend or enforce. No, I come with a simple message that all people are equally sacred and that we all have a task to try to understand the other enough to converse on their terms, not on mine alone.
So by his response, this scribe has also come to the realization that our atonement with God is entirely proportional to our atonement with other people and as we love our neighbour as ourselves we too will find that we are as near to the kingdom as he was.
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