31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: Purity of Wisdom
Have you ever played “Horseshoes”? In this electronic-driven world, many have never heard of the game, or maybe even the object. Did you know horses have shoes? They do, and they look like this: In the game of horseshoes, players try to toss a horseshoe around a stake driven in the ground, like so. When the player successfully encircles the stake, it is called a “Ringer”, and it is worth five points. If his toss ends up leaning against the stake, it is called a “Leaner”, worth three points. But if no player gets a ringer or a leaner the players measure, and the horseshoe closest to the stake scores one point for that round. So even if a player has no ringers or leaners, he can still get points if he is close.
Because a player could get points for just getting close to the target, the expression arose, “Close only counts in Horseshoes,” This was said whenever someone said, “I was so close!” Later on the expression was expanded to include atomic bombs, because with an A-bomb, all you have to get is close to your target to do some serious damage. So now, close only counts in horseshoes and atomic bombs.
This is relevant today because of Jesus’ words to the scribe, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” At first this seems good, but not really. If He is not far, that means he is not yet there. He is not far, we could even say he is close. But remember, close only counts in horseshoes and atomic bombs. Except in those two things, the goal is never just to get close. Not far from the Kingdom is not the same as in the Kingdom. Close, but not yet there.
When the news says that the police are close to an arrest, no one is in jail yet. If the fire is close to being extinguished, don’t send the fire trucks home yet. If you tell your boss you are close to a big deal, he is only close to happy with you. Do you take a cake out of the oven when it is only close to being baked? Did you ladies leave for Church this morning when you were only close to being finished making up? Men, when you asked your wives if they were finished dressing and they said “Close,” you didn’t say, “Well, close is good enough, let’s go ahead and leave,” did you?
It reminds us of the famous words of King Agrippa, “Paul, you almost persuade me to be a Christian.” (Acts 26: 28 KJV) Did you ever hear of King Agrippa getting saved? No, because ‘almost’ is like ‘not far’: maybe good, but not good enough!
So why does Jesus make this indictment against the scribe, even after admitting that he had “answered intelligently”? For the scribe, the Kingdom of God is just a list: At first a Top Ten List, which Jesus reduces down to two, but still just a list. In a way, it is for him just a “To Do” list.
A “To Do” list is not a bad thing, to a certain extent. Management experts teach their downline staff to make the responsibilities of the workforce clear: Give them basic lists of what to do, and how to do it. The average person can work well with that; he’s comfortable with it.
Even the Bible is filled with lists. There are endless genealogies, a list of those who went down to Egypt, and a list of the returning exiles. There are the Ten Commandments, and even Jesus’ Greatest Commandment is essentially the ultimate two-part list. Then you have a list of the disciples, the list of the gifts of the Spirit, the works of the flesh, the fruits of the Spirit – there’s a long list of lists! Today’s Old Testament reading is a list of instructions on how to focus on the list of commandments. The Israelite was to write them down, show them off, keep them in front of his eyes, and – notice this – on his heart. On, not in.
Perhaps this was where the scribe missed out, for the Kingdom of God is not a list, but a life. Was he focusing on the commandments, or on a list? Was his intelligent analysis just that, a focus on the letter of the law and its words? As we said, that is easy, comfortable to do. But to get inside the words, and get them inside of you, is a different level.
When the Bible gives us all these lists, they are not just for duplication. “Memorize these, and you’re good.” Sorry, that’s close, but not yet the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not a game of horseshoes, and ‘close’ doesn’t count. ‘Not far’ is too far away. Rather than mere mental duplication or information, the commandments – ten, two, or six hundred two - are given for revelation, inspiration, and realization, a means to bring us from list to life. They show us too, as Scripture says, “Live a life of love.” While the scribe was bogged down with trying to live a life of lists, the very lists with which he was consumed were trying to show him how to love.
Psalm 119 shows us the difference. Verse six says, “I shall not be ashamed when I look upon all Your commandments.” I’m proud that I’ve memorized the whole list! That’s where the scribe was. Close, not bad; not far, but not enough! Verse six must be followed by verse seven: “I shall give thanks to You with uprightness of heart when I learn Your righteous judgments.” When I really look into and understand Who God is, I’m not just free from shame. Through the list I have an understanding, an awareness of God, and now I respond in thanks, rather than pride.
To move beyond that life of lists and live a life of love, we must understand that love, whether for God or man, is basically an awareness of something or someone other than ourselves. If we are not tuned in, aware, of the experiences and needs of others we cannot claim to love them. If we focus only on our own sphere and are not aware of all the wonders of creation around us, or do not see in God’s Word the humbling record of His grace and love for us, we can never love Him as we should. But when we open our eyes to see the greatness of God, it brings us to true life, the life of love. When we see the true value of others, we will be open to expressions of true love, not based on what they do or can do for us, but based on who they are in God. Love becomes a reality, not just an item on a checklist to fulfill in a way prescribed in another list.
Are we aware of the message of Hebrews: that our Lord Jesus Christ entered, shed His own blood, and gave all He had – His life – for all – for Maria, for Miguel, for Isabell, for Juan, for all? (Hebrews 9: 11-12) If not, the Fourteen Stations are just another list of things Jesus went through. But when we really let this passage into our hearts, and let the awareness of the price Jesus paid burn into our being, we will know that His blood has cleansed us from dead works – keeping lists – and true love for God will burn in our hearts. Then we will be true servants of God. (Hebrews 9: 14) What makes a good servant? He must, above all, be aware of his master, be focused on Him and whatever needs he might have. That is love, whether for God or neighbor.
I was so excited when I came in this morning and we started singing the hymn, “How Great Thou Art”. It is a great example of the greatness of who God is. So often, we get so busy that we don’t even look at the things around us. Even if we are in the city, there is an awesome display of God’s creation. Look around and be aware. Slow down and see the handiwork of God. See the foliage around. Every night, there is the glorious, beautiful moon in the sky – perfectly symmetrical, but are we aware of them? When we see the works of God what else can we do but say, “Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee. How great Thou art!” Take the time to be aware of what the hymn is saying about the wonders of God’s work or else it will just be another song to sing. An awareness of the things around us builds a love for God and for our neighbor.
I learned a lesson about awareness back in mid-1997, when we were still occupying the old Magallanes Theater. I was walking around outside the property one day when my attention fell upon a hedge against the building planted there long ago, probably when the place was built. The bushes were all filled with tiny white flowers. As I walked over to investigate, I found every flower – hundreds of them - identical with the others. Each was about half the size of my pinky fingernail, with five precisely identical pristine yellow-rimmed white petals going around a yellow center. Toward the end of each petal was a tiny black dot. What precision! What meticulous attention to detail! And this just for one forgotten hedge which was slated for imminent destruction, never again to be enjoyed by anyone.
That was when I got a glimpse of God’s majesty. If He could do such a work of art in that forgotten corner of Makati, that miniscule bit of His universe, how great is He Who framed the entire creation with just that much care? That awareness of His majesty induced great love for Him. He was no more just a list of attributes (and blessings) for me.
And that is how love works. It is not the list of characteristics which produces love, but an awareness, an understanding, an appreciation of those gifts we learn from the lists. When we live that kind of life, filled with that kind of love, it won’t matter anymore that close only counts in horseshoes and atomic bombs; for we will not be merely close to the Kingdom, but actively living its life.