Jesus’ teaching was intensifying opposition from the Jewish religious community. In Mark 12:12, they sought to lay hands on Him. In Mark 12:13, they sought to catch Him in His words. The Pharisees and the Herodians started it, the Sadducees tried their hand, and then a scribe approached Him. In Elihu-fashion, he had been listening to the others interrogate Jesus and He decided to ask a plain, simple question. “Which is the first commandment of all?” (Mark 12:28). That was it. No silly scenarios. No disingenuous flattery belying sullied motives. It was a solid, serious, and substantial question. Jesus masterfully, straightforwardly answers the man, then he responds, “Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he: And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:32-33). Jesus’ evaluation of the man is captured by the inspired Luke: “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). What does that last statement suggest?
Improvement. It was a definite improvement over the other religionists represented on this occasion. It may have been an improvement over his attitude before he saw and heard Jesus handle these critics. That he was not far from the kingdom of God suggests progress. He was going the right direction.
Integrity. He had used no cunning and did not try to justify himself. The words hypocrisy and greatly mistaken tell Jesus’ attitude toward those others, but this exchange with the scribe seems marked by honesty and openness. He could see that true love was more crucial than the entire Old Testament sacrificial system. Jesus would prove that at the cross (cf. Gal. 2:20).
Insufficiency. As hopeful as this encounter was for the scribe, it closes with the man not far from the kingdom, yet not a part of it either. This is not to suggest that the man’s circumstance was hopeless. Certainly, with a heart like that, he could easily be imagined as one who obeyed the gospel when the apostles soon began preaching it. Yet, we must be reminded that “not far from the kingdom” is not enough for anyone today. The religiously sincere, the moral, the ethical, the honest, and the charitable have much to commend them, but none of those things alone suffice. Be grateful for those you meet who demonstrate these character traits, but let it propel you to try and persuade them of the gospel. If they are so honest-hearted, they will submit to Jesus’ will.