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So Near and Yet So Far

November 13, 2006

To the eye untuned to the gospel, the vignettes of Mark 12 could pass in a disjointed blur of trailers of Mark: The Movie, Part 12. But the passages are very connected, very much a part of one theme: mens’ relation to the gospel. The Pharisees, as usual, are either offended or they don’t get it. First, they hear a parable of a vintner, and they recognize the characters: there they are, the killers of the prophets. Did they see themselves as the murderer of the Messiah as well? Evidently they identified with the end of the story, because they were certainly offended; they knew Jesus had spoken the parable against them.

Next, they sent the Delta Pharisees and Herodians to catch him in his words. (Mark 12:13) They’re caught up in their legalistic little games, trying to bait Jesus with insolent questions about whether they owe taxes to Caesar. I think this is a particularly interesting example of our Lord’s method of relay. He doesn’t refer this team to the Scriptures, as he does even Satan in the wilderness challenge; instead, he refers them to their own sphere of knowledge: the coin of the realm. Money is the language they understand; money is where they receive their answer. They marvel.

Then come the Sadducees, who are ignorant of the Scriptures and the power of God and do not believe in the Resurrection. They work up the Pepsi Challenge about the woman who survived seven husbands under Levirate law, and they find out they have everything all wrong. Matthew records their astonishment (Matthew 22:33). Luke does not record their response, but does record an additional explanation Jesus gives: For he is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him. (Luke 20:38) Like it or not, believe it or not, all live unto him.

Then a scribe came up to Jesus by himself. He does not address Jesus, does not call him “Lord,” but merely asks him about the first, or greatest commandment of all. Jesus tells him the first is to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. (Mark 12:30) Then he tells him the second commandment is, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. The scribe agrees with Jesus, adding his understanding that love of God and neighbor is more than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices. (Mark 12:33)

Then, Jesus says something rather cryptic: Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. (Mark 12:34) How can one be “not far” from the kingdom of God? Isn’t one either in or out? Perhaps Jesus saw the scribe as being of the right spirit, but he had not yet embraced the gospel by faith. So there is a “close,” that must be “closed.” The scribe isn’t yelling, “Lord, thou son of David!” He isn’t asking for the Lord’s mercy. He isn’t desperate for relief from his burden of sin. He is still testing his own intellectual grasp of the law. We don’t know where he wound up.

Then Jesus starts asking questions. The Pharisees aren’t quick to grasp the meaning of the 110th Psalm, as to how David’s son can be David’s Lord. The common people hear him gladly (Mark 12:37), but maybe that’s because they’re glad to see the Pharisees looking dumb. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees strongly, ending with “greater damnation.” (Mark 12:40)

Lastly, we see a scene in the temple, as the Lord observes what everyone casts in to the treasury. A certain poor widow cast in two mites. Jesus lauds her act to his disciples: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living. How easy it is to be dutiful and give of our abundance; how trustful to give of our want all that we have, knowing God will provide for all our needs.

That trust, the ability to give of our want, was lacking in the rich young ruler. (Mark 10:17-22) Jesus did not tell the young man that he was close to the kingdom of God, but he told him he “lacked one thing.” (Mark 10:21) We know this young man went sadly away.

There is, of course, a great gulf fixed between the kingdom of God and those who will prefer the world and ultimately accept responsibility for their perdition. Whatever “not far” actually means, it is not a destination and not a safe place to abide. It is a place of mortal danger that requires urging on. We don’t know what became of the inquisitive scribe. Who wants to follow in his footsteps?

Posted by Mrs. B at 6:45 AM

Victorbravo said…
Nice observations and tour through an important aspect of the gospel. Providentially, I was listening to the start of a lecture series on Calvin’s Institutes by David Calhoun of Covenant Seminary. He pointed out that the original full title of Calvin’s earlier 1536 edition was:

The Institute of the Christian Religion containing almost the whole Sum of Piety and whatever it is necessary to know in the Doctrine of Salvation.

And then he commented on the heading of Book 1, Chapter 2, Section:

“Piety is requisite for the knowledge of God.”

Perhaps the close scribe was missing this. Calvin, at the end of Chapter 2 states:

“Such is pure and genuine religion, namely, confidence in God coupled with serious fear—fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law. And it ought to be more carefully considered that all men promiscuously do homage to God, but very few truly reverence him. On all hands there is abundance of ostentatious ceremonies, but sincerity of heart is rare.”

Or as Solomon put it so long ago: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” Eccl. 12:13.

It is in fearing God, I think, rather than trying to explain God on one’s own terms, that determines where on the gulf one resides.

8:56 AM
Mrs. B said…
The observation in your last sentence is profound. We’re on very thin ice if we try to explain God on our own terms. I think that is exactly what the Scribe’s problem was.

I appreciate Calvin’s take on piety, too. It doesn’t have to be an epithet of emotionalism.

9:07 AM
Anonymous said…
Much to chew on. “Delta Pharisees” stuck, though. Har,har. and I haven’t been back to Calvin’s Institutes in years.

That Jesus encourages reasoning when he preaches to dead bones is important: the unbeliever walks away perplexed, knowing he is near, but not there. Still out. Still dead in trespasses and sins. Perhaps having suffered a mortal wound through his not so impenetrable armor in the exchange.

4:46 AM


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