In the Gospel Reading, a scribe asks Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments?”
Maybe the point of asking this question is like the point of asking “what are the most important requirements for this course?” A student who wants that information is trying to figure out what is crucial for passing the course. If he does the most important thing, maybe he doesn’t have to do everything.
In response to the scribe’s question, Jesus tells him not only the commandment that is first of all but also the one that is second. Taken together the two commandments cover the ground. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. [And] …You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
So if the scribe does just the most important things, he will have done pretty close to everything, won’t he? If he was hoping for a way to get through without doing everything required for the kingdom of heaven, these two commandments will show him that he hasn’t got a chance. If he doesn’t do everything, he will have done virtually nothing, because he will have failed at the most important stuff.
The scribe likes this much about the answer of Jesus: it privileges morality above ritual. And so he has at least found something that isn’t crucial. Obeying these commandments is better than sacrifice, he says affirmingly to Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t disagree. But what he says to the scribe is “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Not far? How can the scribe be distant in any way if he understands these commandments and accepts them as most important?
But here is the thing to see. Who loves God with all his heart? Who loves his neighbor as himself? If obeying these commandments is the most important thing, what hope is there for anybody?
The answer is -- Jesus. He is the Savior, who came to rescue people from their failures to obey the most important commandments. All true hope of the kingdom of heaven lies in him.
And so the scribe, who is next to Jesus, is not far from the kingdom of heaven in more than one sense.