By Randy Limbird
One of the many mysterious statements by Jesus comes up when someone addresses him as “Good teacher” as a preface to asking Jesus about what it takes to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
Some interpret this passage as Jesus denying his divinity, inferring that Jesus is saying he isn’t good because only God is good. Others read it as just the opposite, that Jesus is affirming his identity as God because he really is good. My take is a little different: I don’t think Jesus was really talking about himself at all, but instead was challenging this other person — traditionally referred to as “the rich young ruler” — on his definition of “good.”
Jesus brings up the Ten Commandments, and the man quickly responds by saying he has kept them all since he was a boy.
Jesus then throws a wrench into the man’s self-defined goodness. He tells him to sell everything he has, give the money to the poor and follow Jesus. The gospels say he walked away sad — this wasn’t the answer he was looking for. Jesus then tells his disciples how hard it is for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
This also went against the conventional wisdom of the day — the rich were considered blessed by God. The disciples respond with “if the rich can’t be saved, who can?” Apparently the prosperity gospel was alive and well even back then.
The fact is, what most people define as goodness has little to do with God. We call ourselves or other people “good” based on man-made rules and principles, or based on comparisons with others. Even if we base our “goodness” on teachings from the Bible, but regard them simply as rules to follow, we miss the point.
Last month’s FishNet column ended with, “The Christian life doesn’t reject rules. It accepts them as a way of responding to God’s grace, not as a substitute for it.”
Jesus was telling this rich young ruler that he was living a life based on following rules, not based on following God. When he was challenged to give up his wealth, he turned away. So all the rules he had been following all his life were in reality a cheap substitute for having an authentic relationship with God.
For young man who had grown up with wealthy, these rules were relatively easy; he had been taught them at an early age and wasn’t tempted to steal or even covet what others had. He already had plenty.
Most of us are in the same situation as the rich young ruler. We’re willing to do the right thing, until faced with giving up what’s most important to us. Which is why Jesus tells his disciples that following him requires more than human effort: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27).
Randy Limbird is editor of
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