From the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 12:
“And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.’ And the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength; and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.'”
This scribe is a remarkable person. Living in a religiously rich and complex culture, he is not lost in “religiosity” but is able to “cut to the chase,” is able to see the essence of it all, the foundations, the meaning of it all, etc. And Jesus has some good news and some bad news for him! First of all, the good news: he is “NOT far” from the kingdom of God; the bad news, however: he is “not FAR” from the kingdom of God. So much in a little phrase! Let us dare to stand in the shoes of this remarkable person and see where this might take us.
First of all the good news: all of us can be “not far” from the kingdom of God. No matter what our situation is, it is always there right at our fingertips so to speak. No matter if we are paralyzed and bedridden or in a wheelchair; no matter if we are sitting in a prison cell; no matter if life seems to be overwhelming us with burdens; no matter if we can’t see things clearly; the kingdom of God is always right there. The “spiritual journey” is available to all and in all circumstances because it is always right there. How close? Augustine tells us that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. That’s how close.
We don’t need to put ourselves into an exotic location; acquire certain credentials; “climb a mountain”; do many deeds, etc.
But like the good scribe we better not get lost in the multiple entanglements of our various religious cultures. To see clearly the “essence” of the journey is to be already “not far” from the goal. Our Zen Buddhist friends seem to have a better handle on this than we Christians, so let us look at this dilemma from their perspective. Dogen, the “father” of Soto Zen, said categorically: “Anybody who would regard Zen as a school or sect of Buddhism and calls it Zen-shu, Zen school, is a devil.” Among other things he is warning us of focusing on a “religious complex” as if belonging to it we have “arrived.”
A monk asks Pai-chang: “Who is the Buddha?”
Pai-chang answers: “Who are you.”
A monk who was a novice came to Joshu and asked him to be instructed in Zen. Joshu said: “Have you not had your breakfast yet?”
Replied the monk: “Yes, sir, I have had it already.”
Joshu: “If so, wash your dishes.”
A monk asked a Zen master: “It is some time since I came to you to be instructed in the holy path of the Buddha, but you have never given me even an inkling of it. I pray you to be more sympathetic.”
Zen master: “What do you mean, my son? Every morning you salute me, and do I not return it? When you bring me a cup of tea, do I not accept it and enjoy drinking it? What more instructions do you desire from me.”
All of the above are illustrations, or better yet “suggestions,” of what that “not far” is all about. Granted that what Zen is pointing to and what Jesus is pointing to may be different realities–not opposite, just complementary–but what is important is the “at hand” quality of what is most critical to our fulfillment as human beings. We don’t need to travel far or have vast resources or be specially gifted to engage what is most important in our life. In fact the only resource we need is our heart, our very life, no matter what shape it is in. Both Jesus and Zen point to the fact that we will find this most important spiritual reality in the very stuff of our lives, in the very stuff of our everyday being.
However, now for the “bad news”–Jesus does not say to the scribe, “You have arrived.” Rather he says, “You are not far.” That means there still is a way to go; there still is something to do; there still is a bridge to cross over as it were. And now this is crucial to grasp: what that “not far” is for each person will be unique to each person–it is part and parcel of each person’s infinitely unique identity, part and parcel of that secret name they carry in their heart by which God calls them into being and by which in turn they and only they call God. Therefore each person has a deep inarticulate grasp of that “not far” for them, but in fact they may not be able to recognize its exact nature and what it entails. It may be manifested in a number of visible ways on the outer surfaces of life while at the same time be totally concealed from a person’s self-reflection. It may be a particular task someone has to carry out in life; a special fidelity in the face of real suffering; a silent witness to the reality of God; a daily self-sacrifice for one’s family; a wrestling with a horrible personal problem that drowns one again and again in degradation, and so on and so on. No matter. The fact is that each of us is on this journey, and it is “not far.”
Now that “not far” may be as short a distance as the subatomic quark or as wide as the universe–all metaphorically speaking of course. But it is a gap that needs stepping across. And it might happen in one moment, or it can take a whole lifetime. No matter. Not far is not far. And there is no technique, no recipe, no formula to cross that “distance.” It is not that kind of distance or that kind of journey. Anytime you are “in control” and “piloting” your self, well, you are doing something else, but it’s not “this.” It may lead to feelings of peace, to a sense of religiosity, to a sense of “pleasing God,” even to a sense of “having arrived” somewhere, etc., but you have not traversed that “not far.” We are all rich in selfhood, and Jesus did say that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. But for God all things are possible. So– abandon yourself to the will of God, to the presence of God in each and every moment, and you will discover how very not far you are from the kingdom of God. It is as simple as that, and it is as difficult as that.