There is a man in this text—a scribe, nonetheless—who is not far from the kingdom of God. Jesus says so himself. That is no small thing, especially considering what had been happening to Jesus ever since his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. After Palm Sunday, Mark records one confrontational encounter with Jesus after another. There was his outburst in the temple (11:15-19); his refusal to answer questions about his authority (11:27-33); his accusing parable (12:1-12); the failed pharisaical trap (12:13-17); and the Sadducees whom Jesus had to tell twice that they were just plain wrong (12:18-28). Throw in the poor fig tree (11:12-14 and 20-26) and you get a picture of Jesus in Jerusalem against the world.

Then there is this man; this lawyer. He is a single bright spot in a string of mounting hostility. [1] “You are not far from the reign of God,” Jesus said.

It is worth examining what the scribe did to receive this commendation. It started as he listened to Jesus’ preceding disputes. He noticed that Jesus had answered his opponents “well” (καλῶς). That is, Jesus was not simply craftier or cleverer. His responses were substantially good, wholesome, and beneficial. That is why the scribe approached him. He too was looking for a good, wholesome, and beneficial answer. Then the scribe did what any good conversation partner would do—he asked a question, listened carefully, and restated what he heard, showing that he understood Jesus. Finally, and importantly, the scribe stated his agreement with Jesus. He confessed (as in, he “said the same thing as”) what Jesus had said. That is always a good idea.

If you read on in Mark after this text, you see this scribe’s praise from Jesus stands out even more. His is one of the last positive encounters anyone has with Jesus. Even the woman who anointed him (14:3-9), whom Jesus praised to the disciples, was a source of confusion among them and earned them a rebuke.

So, the scribe is worth thinking about, but the text is not primarily about the scribe as a person. It is about what he says about the law. He asked Jesus for the “most important” command and Jesus gave him two; or, more precisely, one in two parts.

Jesus began his response to the scribe’s question with a confession: “The Lord is God; the Lord is one.” Mark is the only of the synoptics to begin with Deuteronomy 6:4. The Shema’s confessional status is significant, for nearness to the kingdom of God begins with recognizing who God is. Origen points out how this recognition is a declaration of war against all would-be gods. When God is God, everything and everyone else takes a back seat (The rich man in 10:17-22 would have benefited from this recognition).

From this confession about God follows Jesus’ command from God. Part one of this command concerns the people’s relationship with God. They are to love him with everything they have and everything they are. There is no ambiguity here. God demands nothing short of absolute adoration and complete devotion. The other side of the coin (or table, as in “table of the law”) is the command to love the neighbor as yourself. Part two is simply the flip side of part one. You cannot separate them. Love for God and love for neighbor together make up the “most important” commandment, demonstrating that God cares as much about how his people treat one another as he cares about how they treat him.

To use traditional categories, this text is all law, which reminds us that Jesus’ praise of the scribe is a good start, but it is not good news (“Not far from the kingdom” is not the same as “in the kingdom”). In other words, the law is good, very good, but it is not the gospel. A sermon on this text, therefore, will need to import the promise of God in Christ.

How might a sermon do this? The preacher might begin by asking the congregation to consider a rather basic question. What is worthy of your love? We love many created things and many created things are lovely. It should not take long to identify such things in the lives of your hearers, but there is only one who is ultimately worthy of our love and adoration. Problems arise when our love for created things overshadow our love for the Creator (The rich man taught us that). Problems also arise when so-called love for God fails to manifest itself in love for the neighbor. This may be a bigger problem for your hearers and perhaps should be the focus of this sermon. Love for our neighbor flows from and manifests our love for God. When we are not loving our neighbor, we are not loving God.

And whence comes love for God? From God, of course. Here is where the promise comes into the picture. God’s love for us is what creates our love for him and each other. To use John’s language, we love him because he first loved us. It is interesting that Mark rarely speaks of God’s love for us (The only time Mark explicitly mentions Jesus’ love for someone is 10:21 when Jesus looked at the rich man and loved him). So, if you are looking for the vocable, you will have to look elsewhere. If you want to stick with Mark, there is just as much love, but Mark shows God’s love in Christ, rather than tells.

The sermon, then, will proclaim the love of God in Christ. That is the promise. It is a promise that elicits a return of love for God from the receiver that manifests itself in love for the neighbor. The preacher would do well to proclaim this promise and command in full.

Additional Resources:

Lectionary Podcast-Dr. David Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN on Mark 12:28-34