Some things are easy to place on a line. There’s no argument, because the information is strictly factual. Age is a good example, and there’s not much room for argument about this in our time-conscious age! The scale goes from the day of birth, our Day One, to the date of our death, as yet undetermined if you are sitting here this morning! If you are a man, to hold the record, you’d have to be older the oldest man on earth just now, who is a Spanish man, Saturnino de la Fuente García, who 112 years and 211 days on 10th September 2021. So the age of a man would be on the line between Day One and 112 years, 211 days.
I’m sure you have all been asked at some time to rate your experience of something on a line from 0 to 10, where 0 is the most negative and 10 is perfection –The kinds of things rated on a scale like that might be efficiency of a car servicing, satisfaction rating for a restaurant. It’s a common way for companies to mine out the details of our personal preferences, information highly valued by marketing companies!
But if you ask family members in a car, having recently left home, how close they are to their holiday destination, the driver may know it is still two hours away, but to the children, their perception may be that they must be really close to the seaside because to them they’ve been on the road a really long time already. I’m sure you have all heard that wail from the back seat, “Are we there yet?” And that’s 20 minutes in …..
So what has that to do with today’s reading? Well, one particular teacher of the law had been listening to Jesus debating with the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees about whether it was right to pay tax to Caesar, and then about marriage at the resurrection – these were important, subtle and detailed questions they were asking Jesus. They wanted to catch him out so they could have him arrested and taken out of the way – his teachings were attracting far too many people for their liking.
But then, one particular teacher who’d been listening to all this had this question for Jesus: “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
Jesus gave his reply in accordance to the teaching which came from the Old Testament, the first part being the Lord is one Lord, and the loving Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, and the second part love your neighbour as yourself from Leviticus 19:18. The teacher, who would have been as well-versed in the Old Testament as Jesus, acknowledged that these were sound teachings, and then he adds that to obey these laws is more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices. When Jesus heard him say this, Jesus’ observation was that the teacher was not far from the kingdom of heaven.
In other words, if Jesus was to put the teacher on a line that had “Unbeliever” at one end, and “Fully repentant and accepting of Jesus as Lord” at the other end, that teacher would be closer to the “Fully repentant and accepting” end than the “Unbeliever” end.
I wonder what the teacher made of that? The statement was typical of conversations Jesus had with people. He asked questions: like he asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?”, last week we heard Jesus ask Blind Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?”. Jesus always drew people on with his answers. The best story for Jesus drawing someone on, to my mind, is the conversation he has with the woman at the well from John’s gospel. Every question he asks makes her think more deeply than the last about her life. Bartimeaus got his sight, but also, on receiving it, he threw over his old life as beggar and followed Jesus, so Jesus had not only given him what he asked for, but drew him on into a new life as well, a huge bonus!
In this case, there is simply the observation, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Like I say, I wonder what the teacher made of that? It could have made him think quite hard, and reflect on the phrase “Kingdom of God”, and then to wonder what Jesus meant about him not being far from it. The teacher already had an idea that obedience to the teachings was better than always making burnt offerings to atone for sin – because that was what was done to atone for sins before Jesus had died and rose again for the sins of the world. Both Jesus and the teacher would have known the verse from Ezekiel 36: 25 and on “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” There was something more than simply following the laws, it was the Spirit moving within, and enlivening of the Spirit, that would mean the teacher would not only obey but understand more deeply the meaning of why he should be obeying.
Okay, that thought may seem complicated. I’ll give you a more contemporary example. I was talking to a couple of the young people from the Old School House a while back. They were two real success stories, although it took the lad two goes, his first stay ended in eviction, but after a while, he applied to come back, because by then, he understood that the rules that he’d broken the first time round were actually there to help him, and so were the staff, their intention was not to give him a hard time, which is probably what he thought the first time he was there. He “got” the point of the help that was on offer, the second time he wasn’t hard hearted in his view of the rules or unaccepting of the help on offer. And he lamented that some of the young people who are there now hadn’t “got it”, didn’t understand that the rules and the staff were there to help them live a better, more fulfilling, and frankly a more mature life.
He did acknowledge that you could go through the project simply obeying all the rules and doing everything the staff told you to do. But to really understand the spirit in which these things were done by the staff, required a change of heart on the part of the client, and when that happened, it fundamentally changed everything for them.
I think the teacher Jesus was talking to was like the young person who went through following all the rules. The teacher knew all the rules, but he was just beginning to realise that there was something more. But the sad thing in that moment was that he didn’t recognise Jesus as the Messiah who he, along with the other Jews, was waiting for with great anticipation! I think he knew there was something more, but couldn’t recognise it in Jesus.
As ever with many of these stories, we don’t know what happened to the teacher after that. I wonder if his heart had burned within him, the same way the hearts of the people on the road to Emmaus burned within them when Jesus was speaking with them. Do you remember, they knew there was something special about him as they were walking along, but the penny didn’t drop that it was actually Jesus until he broke bread with them? I wonder if the teacher had a moment sometime later when the thought went through his mind that maybe this man that he’d been talking to was the Messiah? We don’t know.
But Jesus said he was not far from the kingdom of God. On a line from “unbeliever” to “fully repentant and accepting”, he was closer to the latter than the former.
So I have a question for you this week, though I am going to shift the goalposts (not always a popular thing to do, but please bear with me, I think it’s a worthwhile shift.) Even in the position of “Unbeliever” we are on the path of a relationship with God, for after all, if you are an unbeliever, the fact is, you’re already engaged in thinking about God, however negatively, and that can be the beginning of a relationship with him. And the real line we’re on starts with unbeliever, but it has no end it is infinitely long because there is always further we can go in our relationship with God.
A great Christian teacher, David Watson, from the 60s and 70s, said having a relationship with God was like peeling the layers off an onion, every time you peeled a layer off, there was another layer, a further layer, to explore and examine and try to understand. There is no end to the depth of relationship we can have with God, with Jesus our Saviour.
And I encourage you in that, please don’t be discouraged because there’s always further to go, be encouraged that Jesus wants you to know more and more about the love that he has for you, and through you, for the family you live in, the people you work with, the friends you meet. Be encouraged, be excited, not to stop at a point and think you’ve arrived, keep looking out for what new thing God has to show you! Keep your spiritual eyes sharp, it could come in any form, from the Bible, directly from God, from a friend, there’s a chance it may even come from a sermon. And keep the commandments, know that the Lord is Lord, that we’ve to love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbour as ourself, going over the old teachings is a great place of review; though old, they often have something new to show us too. So like that family on their way to the seaside, please keep moving, in your case, moving forward in your relationship with the Lord.