“You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
Jesus‘ encounter with the scribe in today’s Gospel may have started out as an official probe into the orthodoxy of a hill country preacher. “Which is the first of all the commandments?” the scribe asks. But then it turns into an exchange of scripture passages and insight that literally glows with fervor. Jesus quotes Deut 6, the familiar prayer called the sh’ma – “Hear O Israel, …” and Lev 9, the command to love neighbor. These two texts comprise the foundation of the Covenant. Caught up in the moment, the scribe repeats the formula and then adds that to love God and neighbor is greater than any burnt offering.
Jesus affirms the scribe, then ends the conversation with his own probe into the legal scholar’s journey toward full understanding and with an open-ended invitation: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” Close, but still not there. Take the next step. Cross the threshold from your intellectual righteousness into the realm of actual love. It may be the most difficult yet important decision you will ever make.
This story has a parallel in another encounter between Jesus and the rich man who had kept all the commandments but wanted to do more (Mark 10:17-25). When Jesus tells him to sell his belongings and give the money to the poor, he balks at the invitation and goes away sad. We are not told what the scribe in today’s reading does, but he might have become a disciple in that moment, or not, considering his status and perceived spiritual security as a teacher of the Law.
T.S. Eliot, in his poem “The Hollow Men,” says it well: “Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow.” How many of us have faltered in that shadow space between inspiration and action. Like the scribe, we are not far from the Kingdom of God, but still not ready to embrace the full implications of loving God with all our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves. The threshold is before us today, and now is a good time to take the next step.