Approaching the Kingdom of God
In the verses that proceed our reading today, Jesus is being tested by the Pharisees and Sadducees to determine whether he truly was the Son of God, the Messiah, the one to lead the people to the kingdom of God.
The connection that the people of Israel had with God was one that was taken very seriously. Even though they had fallen away from God at many times in their history, the relationship never was ultimately broken. And as much as it appeared that they were a stubborn lot who didn’t grasp a lot of what God truly required, many of them were making a sincere attempt to understand God’s will and follow the way of life that God had ordained for them. In fact, that is exactly what every generation of followers has sought to do.
We do not have the luxury of seeing God in the flesh. We cannot ask him questions and get direction as those first disciples could. We depend on the Holy Spirit of God to guide us and seek for the spiritual presence of God in Jesus to direct our steps and inform our decisions. And as we rely on the presence of God through the Holy Spirit, we pray that that Spirit will enable us to find the path of God as we live out the days that we have been given here on this earth.
As Christians and followers of the way of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, our lives are lived in partnership with God. We are in a relationship with God that requires us to align our wills with the will of God. This does not deny us freedom of thought or action but rather it links us with the One whom we acknowledge to be our God, our Lord and our Saviour. The link we have with God is an overarching link that is to inform all our relationships – those within our family units in the home, our interactions at work or in social events in the wider community and our interactions with one another in our faith community and the faith communities that surround us.
The Pharisees and Sadducees who came to test Jesus were concerned with issues that were no doubt important to some degree but were of little consequence in the overall context of their life and relationship to God. Truly it is important to ever give to the worldly powers their due remembering to give to God what is due to him and truly we may ponder what may be beyond the veil of death, but Jesus encouraged the people of his day to focus not what might be but rather what is today. God is the God of the living, declares Jesus in verse 27. When our minds wander to such things, he would say that we are far from the truth. So, what is the truth to which we are to strive?
Repeatedly, when Jesus is questioned or when he questions others about what is the first of all commandments, the correct answer is what is known as the Shema. It is the ultimate declaration of faith, the first confession of faith that the Bible records as a confession of faith for the people of God and one which they are never to forget and by which all their actions in life are to be guided. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
Jesus then adds the second commandment which sums up our duty to one another which is the natural consequence to the first: You must love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus then adds that there is no commandment greater than these.
The use of the word ‘must’ is significant because it does not leave room for something less than complete devotion to God whom we recognize as the Creator, Sustainer and Saviour of our lives. And while our success at following these commandments is not 100%, we are encouraged to keep striving to love our God with our whole being and ever seek to love our neighbour as ourselves.
A friend in Edmonton has a Muslim neighbour. He told her that according to his belief, he is to care for 10 neighbours in each direction of his house. He is to love them as he would love himself. When she heard this, she thought that this was a limiting expression of love of neighbour as Jesus encouraged us to not see anyone as a stranger but all as our neighbours. Yet while we can imagine everyone to be our neighbour on some existential level, we can only effectively love or care for the neighbours that are closest to us physically or emotionally. True enough, we can be encouraged to widen our circle our neighbours but think of the influence we can have if even we were to follow the example of that Muslim man and care for the 10 closest to us in every direction. Like a pebble in a lake, the ripples extending out would transmit that care from one to another. Ten neighbours helping and caring for 10 more neighbours.
In another famous parable of Jesus, the story of the Good Samaritan illustrates these two commandments very well. The Good Samaritan ignores issues of ritual purity and instead opts to provide what care and assistance he can to a man in trouble. Jesus constantly shows us that our response to the needs of neighbours is paramount. And while Jesus appeared to ignore many of the laws that the Pharisees held dear and that were given by God to direct the people in their communal life, it should be noted that he saw a law that surpassed all other laws and that was the law of mercy.
Our interpretation and our application of any laws that we have adopted from our forebears in the faith both before and after the coming of God in Jesus Christ need ever be made in the light of these two greatest commandments. As a reformed and reforming body of Christians, we need to ask ourselves whether our system of governance and our rules around matters of faith and practiceare reflective of the two commandments that Jesus recognized and acknowledged as paramount.
In the times of the Pharisee in our story, the offering of sacrifices was the ultimate way that a person could declare their allegiance to God and maintain their connection to God ensuring God’s favour. But the Pharisee came to understand that the words of the Shema and the second commandment that Jesus declared meant far more. His realization of this was acknowledged by Jesus when he said to him that he was not far from the Kingdom of God.
The Bible gives us many descriptions about the Kingdom of God. But we are still left wondering what it will truly look like or where it truly is. We pray the prayer our Lord taught us and ask that the will of God be done here on earth as it is in heaven. We are seeking to approach that place where the kingdom of God is fully realized not only for ourselves but for the world, as we believe that it is only that kingdom that can truly bring peace and an end to suffering.
So, what will bring us closer to that Kingdom? It is not our weekly offerings, but they will help us maintain a place of witness. It is our daily commitment to heed the words of the Shema and to dedicate ourselves to loving our God with our whole being and loving the neighbour as we love ourselves. And as we do so, we will feel the presence of God and we will find strength and courage as we journey toward the Kingdom of God.