One of the legal experts came up, and overheard the discussion. Realizing that Jesus had given a splendid answer, he put a question of his own. ‘Which commandment’, he asked, ‘is the first one of all?’ ‘The first one’, replied Jesus, ‘is this: “Listen, Israel: the Lord your 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 under standing, and with all your strength.” And this is the second one: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” No other commandment is greater than these ones.’ ‘Well said, Teacher,’ answered the lawyer. ‘You are right in saying that “he is one and there is no other beside him”, and that “to love him with all the heart, and with all the intelligence, and with all the strength” and “to love one’s neighbour as one-self ” is worth far more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ Jesus saw that his answer came out of deep understanding. ‘You are not far from God’s kingdom,’ he said to him. After that, nobody dared put any more questions to him.
As the Nazi party was increasing its power in pre-war Germany, the great theologian Karl Barth, still at that stage teaching in Bonn, came into contact one day with one of the party officials. The policies that had made the Nazis popular at that stage included the claim that they were pulling the country back from the anarchy and chaos of earlier years to ‘law and order’, tidying up society as it were and bringing it into shape.
‘Don’t you think, Herr Barth,’ said the official, ‘that what we need today is the Ten Commandments?’
‘Yes,’ replied Barth. ‘Especially the first one.’
Barth saw through the pretence. The Nazis weren’t really interested in morality at all. They wanted to put up a front of legal rectitude behind which they would smuggle in all their own agendas, enforcing them on a population that was becoming used to behaving properly, to allowing lawful authority to go unchallenged. But at the head of the Ten Commandments is the one that puts everything on a different plane: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.’ And if God is God, and if he claims our total and ultimate allegiance, then all the schemes and plots of the Nazis were called into question. Perhaps not surprisingly, Barth was soon forced out of Germany and went back to his native Switzerland.
Barth’s theological (and political) instinct was, of course, fuelled by a lifetime of being soaked in the scriptures. And here, near the heart of Mark’s account of Jesus’ debates in Jerusalem in the days before his death, we find an exchange in which both Jesus and his questioner end up in agreement, and with Jesus saying the remarkable words, ‘You are not far from God’s kingdom.’ What was it that the legal expert had grasped? How does this help us to see our way, as Easter people, into the work of that kingdom for ourselves?
Recall what’s just happened. Here in Mark 12 Jesus is poised between two things: his dramatic action in the Temple in chap-ter 11, and the great and frightening discourse of chapter 13, focused on the Temple’s upcoming destruction. Virtually all the material in chapters 11 and 12 deals, from one angle or another, with the question: what was Jesus saying about the Temple? What was he saying about the kingdom? How did it all work out?Jesus’ answer, by itself, was fairly unremarkable. The great rabbis would often debate questions like this. For Jesus to answer with the matchless ‘Shema’ prayer (Deuteronomy 6.4 –5), ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one’ (niv), with its command to love God with every fibre of one’s being – and then to append ‘love your neighbour as yourself ’ (which comes from Leviticus 19.18) – all this, though powerful, might have been seen as quite a ‘safe’ answer.
But the legal expert, still no doubt pondering what Jesus had done in the Temple, goes one little but all-important step further. If you really love God and your neighbour like that, he ponders, you won’t need the sacrificial system at all, will you?
Mark doesn’t say that Jesus smiled, but if you were producing this passage as a mini-play you would certainly get the actor to do just that. The ‘deep understanding’ that the legal expert had displayed was exactly in line with the ‘deep understanding’ of Jesus himself about the whole purpose of his mission. Like the sabbath (a signpost pointing forward to the great ‘rest’, the restoration of the whole creation); like the food laws, designed to keep Israel ‘pure’ until the time when purity of heart was at last to be attainable; so the Temple itself, the building where heaven and earth met, and where the regular sacrifices kept God and Israel in communion, was designed by God as a temporary symbol until the ultimate reality arrived. The whole point of Jesus’ kingdom-proclamation was that the time of waiting was over. ‘The time is fulfilled!’ (1.15). Jesus is now offering, to anybody and everybody who will hear and believe, the reality to which the Temple itself was a signpost. As in chapters 7 and 10, so here, it appears that he sees ‘the kingdom of God’ as the new reality in which those who believe will indeed love God with all their hearts, and their neighbours as themselves. And to do this they won’t need the Temple. He has, in effect, declared it redundant: not because it was a silly idea in the first place, but because the reality to which it pointed has now arrived.
We may well think, even as we celebrate Easter, that we still have a long way to go before we have, ourselves, arrived at the kind of life that Jesus assumes his people will live. But the point is not that we suddenly become completely perfect. The point is that the way is open, for anyone who takes Jesus seriously, to know and experience that mutual love with God that is the hallmark of all serious Christian faith, and to offer, to everybody we meet, that outgoing, creative, healing love that Jesus himself offered to all and sundry. If Jesus is truly risen from the dead, nothing – even the renewal and transformation of the human heart! – is now impossible.
Give us, loving Lord, such love for you, and for one another, that our lives may display your glory to the world of hate and fear.