"You Are Not Far From the Kingdom of God" : Studies in Mark, Pt. 51

I have complained before that Markan commentaries are notorious for simply reproducing information. You can select just about any major commentary on Mark today, compare it with another, and it undoubtedly, the two will say a lot of the same things. I have a number of problems with this. First, it seems like I have wasted my money. Second, it seems like a number of scholars have wasted their time and mine as well. Thirdly, it suggest to me that many scholars are just writing a book for the sake of publishing; they are not thinking through things or attempting to make significant, new gains.

Don’t get me wrong, certainly, some things are correct and must be passed along as such. We don’t need to try to create new things or theories just for the sake of it, though, in large part, hypothesizing is what helps the field make such great gains. I hope that if I ever have the chance to write a commentary on Mark’s Gospel account, it will say some new things and make some fresh contributions (not just regurgitated ones) to the field and to people’s faith lives. I say all of this because out of over 30 or so works on Mark that I have consulted in the last few days, all of them tended to say the same thing when it comes to Mk. 12.28-34.

This is the story where the “Teacher of the Law” comes and asks Jesus which commandment is greatest. Jesus cites the Shema and a portion of Leviticus so as to say: The first is loving God with your whole being and the second is loving your neighbor. The “Teacher of the Law” affirms what Jesus says, basically repeats it as his own answer (though he does add the comment about loving God and others is more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices) and then, Mark notes that Jesus approved of the man’s reply. In His approval, Jesus tells the man that he is “not far” from the Kingdom of God. After this, nobody asks Jesus any more questions.

Every Markan work I read suggested that Jesus was complimenting the “Teacher of the Law” here and giving him kudos. Personally, though, I’m not buying it. Why? Because from the beginning of Mk, the religious and political officials from Jerusalem have been out to kill Jesus (see 3.6). At this point, Jesus has come to the very place where they’ve been plotting to kill Him—the Jerusalem Temple—and He’s challenged their views and practices. He’s claimed the same (if not greater) authority as them, He’s flipped over tables, He’s run people off and He’s been teaching. Mk. 12.28-34 is the fourth questioning or quizzing attack on Jesus, it is not a friendly discussion.

Look, for instance, at Mk. 12.12. It says, “Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders looked for a way to arrest Jesus because they knew He had spoken the parable against them.” So, just before our focal pericope here, Jesus has ticked off the teachers of the law, among others, and their out for vengeance. After this encounter, one of them comes back to Jesus and quizzes Him. Again, it is not a nice rap session. Look also at the following verses. At Mk. 12.38-40, Jesus rails against the “Teachers of the Law” saying, “Watch out for the teachers of the law…These men will be punished most severely.” So, Mk. 12.28-34 is pretty much sandwiched between two stories where there is great tension between Jesus and the Teachers of the Law. They want to kill Him then one challenges Him and then Jesus warns everyone against them and speaks of their impeding judgment.

How, then, can every commentator continue to argue that Jesus is being nice here? Or, how can they argue that the Teacher of the Law is being sincere? Why would there be three back-to-back-to-back challenge questions and the fourth one, which follows the same pattern, not be? Let me add more evidence to my argument. When the man calls Jesus “teacher’, there is no reason to take this as either sincere or as a compliment. In 12.14, the questioners approach Jesus and call Him “teacher” and stroke His ego with the compliment that He “teaches the ways of God”. These are insincere comments just like the one in Mk. 12.32. Notice that the rich young man in Mk. 10.17 says the same thing!

Near the end of the pericope, Mark says that Jesus saw that the man had answered wisely. Just because the man answered wisely does not mean that Jesus thought favorably of him. But then Mark notes that Jesus tells the man, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” Is this meant to be taken in an ethical, intellectual, spiritual, inward, outward or locative sense? Well, it probably depends is meant here by “Kingdom of God”. Interestingly, Mk. 1.15, the point where Jesus begins His formal ministry, has Jesus announcing that the “Kingdom of God is near” to the people. Later, at 4.11, Jesus tells the disciples that the “Kingdom of God has been given to them”. The Kingdom of God is not being spoken of as a virtual palace or place here but rather the presence of God in Jesus. In other words, God has come near in Jesus, God has been given in Jesus and the man is not far from God in Jesus. Thus, the man is not far from God as He is right there in His presence.

The saddest part of this story, perhaps is that the man doesn’t take the next step or ask the next logical question: “If I’m not far, what do I need to do to get there?” Instead, like the rich young man, he seems to just walk away. He asks no more questions. In fact, that is why I think Mark adds that closing line “And from then on no one dared ask Him any more questions” (Mk. 12.34). How can Jesus commend this? Myself, I have to think that Jesus was either frustrated or heartbroken. Unlike the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years in Mk. 5, the woman who grabbed hold of Jesus, this guy does nothing. He appears to walk away. Jesus is not looking favorably on him, again, a few verses later, He’s railing against the “Teachers of the Law”.

I think I’ve made my point. In reading, though, I also wonder if at 12.34 there term “etolma” would be better suited to read “was bold to/towards” instead of “dared to”. If so, the sentence would make a lot of sense in light of the four controversy scenes: “And from then on no one was bold to/towards Him asking any more questions.” (Could it possibly carry the sense of “bold-faced” here?) This would certainly render the man as trying to catch Jesus in His words or to trap Him up. It would also make sense that they no longer approached Him with such boldness that they had been doing because He confounded them all. This seems to make a lot of sense given the overall context of Mk. 12 especially. By the way, the same term is used in Mk. 15.43 when Joseph of Arimathea approaches Pilate “boldly”.

Thus, I suggest that the confrontation between the single Teacher of the Law and Jesus was one full of challenge and tension, especially social tension. For the fourth time in a row, Jesus wins out. Following this, nobody is acting boldly towards Him any more; He has been an arguer par excellence and in doing so, has earned Himself a little more time, but not much!

By the way, when the man replies to Jesus that loving God and others is greater than burnt offerings and sacrifices, I don’t think the guy or Mark are meaning to suggest that the Temple is being succeeded. It is tempting to read it that way but given the sneakiness of the religious and political leaders, I see the man’s comment as an attempt to get Jesus to agree with the statement (thus, the guy is really playing Devil’s advocate) so that Jesus’ head will be on the chopping block. In the end, that’s inevitably what happens! So, maybe this guy knew which card to play to get Jesus to say what he wanted, and it worked. After all, in the next chapter, Jesus does give an explanation about the Temple where He basically reminds the disciples that the Temple is no longer the locus of God’s presence but He is. Thus, the guy is wise because he has played his cards right and in a few days, Jesus will be crucified.


  1. I'd disagree with your initial statement about Mark commentaries - France's NIGTC volume is definitely excellent.

  2. Mike,
    I don't disagree with you here, it is a quality commentary. However, linguistically, it's not all that different from other works like Collins' new commentary or the 2 vol. Word set. It doesn't offer many new insights in this area. As far as commentary goes, honestly, it doesn't say all that much that's different from any other major Markan commentary. How do I know? Because I have about 30 commentaries and I read them every week together. Look, I'm not saying they're not good works. What I am saying is that when you compare them to one another, they're all strikingly similar.

  3. Okay, I see what you're saying and it isn't surprising since they're all studying the same book. I only have 2 Mark commentaries (well, I have more digital) Cranfield and Lane.

  4. Mike,
    Right, I wasn't saying that on their own, they're not quality. I was saying when you compare them, they're all so similar. Even though they are studying the same work, it's like none of them attempt to contribute anything that is new or all that thought provoking. Thus, my comment in the post about regurgitating.