As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
We’ll find out in a few verses that “give up your wealth” isn’t what this man wants to hear. But putting aside for a moment the questions about entering heaven with or without our respective riches, or what size holes camels can actually fit through, first let’s consider just one word: “good.”
All three synoptic gospels note that Jesus takes issue with the phrasing of the rich man’s use of the word “good.” And each time Jesus says that only one is good, and that one is God.
This seems a little strange, because the Bible starts with the goodness of everything. Genesis 1:1-2:4 is nothing but God unfolding creation, sitting back, and seeing that it is good every step of the way. Actually, the first thing God calls not good is Adam’s solitude: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).
We know, from scripture and often from experience, that being too long without companionship is not good. But scripture also reveals to us another easily-recognizable facet of human nature: that rivalry is ever lurking beneath or at the edges of our relationships, from Cain and Abel up through this week’s encounter. We have already seen the hapless disciples bickering over who of them is greatest. They wanted Jesus to castigate any ministers working without the proper certification.
And despite Jesus’s efforts, the rivalry will continue. In a thorough essay on envy and jealousy, scholars Anselm Hagedorn and Jerome Neyrey point out that the Gospel of Mark says it explicitly: “For [Jesus] realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over” (Mark 15:10).
Perhaps we can see Jesus’s somewhat harsh initial response to this man’s question as another in a series of Jesus’s efforts to slow the growing rivalry that will ultimately lead to his death.
The perfect breeding grounds for envy, according to Hagedorn and Neyrey, are: (1) the idea that there is a limited amount of good, (2) rivalistic society, and (3) cultural values of honor and shame. From the time of his humble birth, Jesus has been trying to flip the script on ancient notions of honor, shame, and prestige. As we saw last week when he defended a child from the disciples, his followers’ insistence on clinging to old ideas of power is really starting to make Jesus mad. His crankiness seems to carry over here into his response to the wealthy man.
Maybe he also knows the man’s phrasing is more illustrative then the man realizes. Perhaps for those of us who are not the Creator, the presence of “good” seems to necessitate a “bad.” Like money, there is only so much good to go around, the voice of scarcity tells us.
Which brings us to the rich man’s actual question, and Jesus’s famous answer: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 25).
The disciples quickly recognize Jesus’s words are not about the rich man alone: “Then who can be saved?” Jesus is talking about all of us whose attachments to the stuff of this world blind us to the reality of God’s goodness that’s available to everyone.
What if what binds us isn’t just the stuff of this world, but also – and this can be especially tricky for some Christians – attachment to the very idea of personal “goodness”?
One adage of 12-step programs is “let go and let God.” More informally, another truism is that “everything I’ve let go of has had claw marks all over it.”
What do you cling to that keeps you from seeing? As with wealth, could an obsession with the idea of “good” be keeping you from the one ultimate good: God?