“Good teacher,” asked a young man one day, running up to Jesus and falling on his knees before him, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
At first glance, we seem to be observing an individual who is a genuine seeker. His posture has communicated keen interest and even submission; his face has likely transmitted eagerness and enthusiasm; his words have articulated respect and resolve. What more could Jesus want in a seeker? Yet Jesus begins His response with a challenge.
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”
Strange. The man has merely used a respectful form of address, and yet Jesus confronts the very first word that has come out of the man’s mouth. Why?
From our records of Jesus’ three years of ministry, His death and resurrection, Jesus does not routinely correct people’s usage of language, so why now? Why this word? The answer lies in Jesus’ correction of the mindset behind the man’s use of the word ‘good’.
Jesus already knows something about this young man that the young man himself does not know—that he is motivated by false identities and false loyalties. He sees Jesus as a teacher—a good one, yes, but just a teacher. This is one of the easiest identities for us to apply to Jesus. It allows us to show him respect as one who authentically tried to add his voice to help a hurting humanity; it allows us to learn from his compassionate disposition; it allows us to appear to be reasonable, inclusive and tolerant of him, as one of many good moral teachers this world has produced. But it also allows us to distance ourselves from real core life change—from a relationship with the Son of God. Teachers are significant and memorable, but they’re neither perfect nor eternal. They’re not God. But Jesus claims to be God.
Secondly, the young man sees himself as good—a good obedient son and a good obedient member of the Jewish religion. He hears the list of commandments Jesus recites, and checks them all off as done.
“You know the commandments:” reminds Jesus, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”
“Teacher,” he declared (notice the young man has withdrawn the word good as he addresses Jesus this time), “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Wait. Has he really kept all the commands? Flawlessly? This young man has a self-identity issue happening here. He has defined goodness as something he has attained. He has already forgotten Jesus’ intelligence that “no one is good—except God alone.” Not only that, but he has failed to notice that within the list of the commandments to be followed Jesus has deliberately omitted the prime commandment contained in the Mosaic Law: “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me”(Deut.5:7).
This is no coincidence. Jesus has been testing the young man. He has been trying to help the young man discern the state of his inner being, of his soul, of his relationship with the LORD his God. But the young man comes up empty. He completely forgets why the commandments exist. And the reason the young man has become distracted from the prime calling and purpose of human life is because he has found a replacement for God. He has found wealth.
Money, material possessions, and the power and social status that accompany the acquisition of wealth have bumped God into second place in the rich young man’s life. Perhaps it has happened so gradually he has not even been aware of it. He has conferred a false identity upon both wealth and God that inverses their true value and sovereignty.
Jesus has diagnosed the foolish rich young man’s heart condition from the moment the young man had come to Him. And now, Jesus offers the one prescription that will reverse the prognosis of spiritual decline into which the young man has fallen: dispose of the intruding god; jettison the cargo that is causing his ship to sink; eradicate the disease that is killing him. Give away his wealth.
Ah, say we. I’m not that wealthy. This doesn’t apply to me. But take a good hard look at how we identify ourselves. What two or three things are we most likely to want to communicate to others about ourselves overtly or covertly? Is it about our social position, our trendiness, our gender, our education or career, maybe even our identity as a victim of something? Anything with which we identify ourselves above our identity as worshipers of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a false identity, and Jesus says ‘Get rid of it! It’s destroying you and it’s destroying your relationship with God.
If this stirs our hearts, if it shakes anything within the core of our souls let’s do the impossible; let’s put God back into first position in our lives. It might hurt. It will mean a change of identities. But there is one thing we can know for absolute certain: it is good.
(Photo Credit: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], File: False Identity Cards; via Wikimedia Commons)