Friday, June 3, 2016

Jesus Asks: Why Do You Call Me Good?

This is the 20th post in my series "Asking Myself," in which I weekly ponder one question posed in Teresa Blythe's rich book, 50 Ways to Pray. You can find the start of the series here and last week's post here. The first nine posts focused on theological musings, while posts 10 to the present prayerfully consider the specific questions Jesus posed in the New Testament.

Q: Why do you call me good?

I let this question rattle around in my head for several days before looking more closely at the context. I remembered that someone came to Jesus and called Him "Good Teacher," to which Jesus shot back, "Why do you call me good? Only God is good." Rather than remembering the entire story, I mostly remembered the unpleasant feeling that Jesus seems to be a little snarky here. I mean, should we not consider Him good? And is He not God Himself? Is He trying to show his deference to the Father? Or is He trying to see if His inquirer is aware that His goodness is actually God-ness? 

Because of Jesus' track record for loving people through words and actions that are radical, counter-cultural, profound yet accessible, I'm going against the seeming dissonance in this question. I'm giving Jesus the benefit of the doubt that he's not being rude and obnoxious to someone who seems to be approaching him with humility and good manners. 

Now let's gather in a few more details. Luke 18:19 is nestled near the famous line that it is easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God (v. 25)... a verse that I've always found troubling in its hyperbole, but thankfully, it's paired with the famous hope-bringer:

 "What is impossible for people is possible with God" (v. 27).

In light of these zingers, perhaps Jesus is trying to highlight that this rich, religious ruler is in the habit of depending on man, in particular, his own skill at following the ten commandments, living off his wealth and his can-do attitude that he hopes will get him into heaven. He might have approached Jesus as though they were equals... seeing Jesus as another outstanding man, a member of society who seemed to have the answers and could perhaps be brown-nosed into sharing his secrets. Maybe that's why Jesus was so provoked by being called "good." 

Let's just go ahead and look at the whole story up close and personal:

"Good Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?"

It might be that he had inherited his vast fortune by being fortuitously born into a wealthy family. He only knows this path to wealth and hopes there might be a similar loophole into the eternal fortune.  At any rate, he's not confident that all his success on earth will get him success in eternity. He senses there must be more. 

After Jesus' initial doge of the question and subsequent ribbing, He brings the conversation back to eternal life, a little surprisingly, with.... the law. I say surprisingly because usually Jesus found ways to circumvent the most supercilious law-keepers and law-enforcers of his day. But I digress!

He starts rattling off the Ten Commandments:

You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. Honor your father and mother...

Here it's the rich ruler's turn to be a little rude. He interjects five commandments in. Yes, yes. Of course, I know all these and have kept them since I was a little boy. But what else must I do?

Before I say what I want to say next, a little note on my theology: I believe God is omniscient (and all the other adjectives being with"omni") but I also entertain the idea that Jesus in the flesh was limited in his omniscience. He certainly had his moments of words of wisdom at the well and at finding coins inside his seafood, etc., but it also seems that he needed to get to know some the way people do. Fully human.

So imagine with me that Jesus has responded to the young ruler first with a disruptive question and second by reciting commandments that any upstanding Jew would know in order to make out his character, to peer into this stranger's heart. Only after the man has responded, does Jesus perceive that the man is ready to hear what he really needs to hear. Notice what the verse says (Italics mine):

When Jesus heard his answer, he said, "There is still one thing you haven't done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

The Jesus I see in this story is fully present, fully engaged in his conversation. He doesn't already know what to say. There's no pre-packaged sermon for encounters like these. He's listening. He's hearing the man's words and the man's heart. And He responds in a way that is so specific, so personal. I almost hear the inner dialog that Jesus does not say as he begins to comprehend the inner condition of this man's heart. 

I know now what you need to hear. Of course you've kept the commandments. It's been easy for you to keep them because you've got a good life. A life of ease. You've no desire to commit adultery because you've got an adoring wife. You've no need to murder because everyone respects you, honors you, defers to you and obeys you. Of course you never steal; what do you lack? When have you ever hungered or feared for your children's lives? You've nothing to hide with lies because outwardly, your life is exemplary in every way. And your parents raised you well and gave you everything you needed. It's not hard to show them honor. 

So, if you want to really test your heaven-worthiness, sell all these possessions. Give up your earthly rank and wealth and respect. Give it too the poor, who are tempted to sin out of desperation every day. Give it up. Then follow Me. 

There it is. The exact answer. Jesus pulled back the curtain. He gave him the ultra-secret password for his personal entry into eternal life and eternal treasure. It was what the rich young ruler was looking for. And all at the same time, it was not what he was looking for. Alas! The loophole turned out to be as tiny as a thread of silk.
When the man heard this, he became very sad, for he was very rich.
The close and personal encounter fades to black and the story pretty much forgets the would-be protagonist. We pan back to Jesus and his disciples and us, the jury of enlightened readers who would never choose material wealth over Jesus. Most of us read this passage and cluck our tongues at this man who loved mammon more than the Savior of mankind. 

But also, I really feel for him. 

We don't know what happened next. Maybe he had a flashback to his mom's bedtime stories and decided he didn't have the fortitude to face a fate like Job's. Why did I call him good? I cannot see the good in what he's asking me to do. 

I feel for this man because I have been there. Some days I feel poor, stingy, and unable to give. In fact, let me confess I struggle with a spirit of fear about money and spending and shopping that at times paralyzes me. I've often felt guilty for buying the week's groceries or school supplies. It's not a reasonable guilt. We've never not had food on the table or a roof over our heads or clothes on our backs. And when I think about myself in a global context, I know I am rich beyond the wildest fantasies of a vast swath of the world's population's. I have it all. The family, the house, the yard, the minivan, the pantry stocked, the world at my fingertips. Access to clean water, health care, education, internet, information, libraries, museums, parks, schools. I have family and friends willing to put us up wherever in the world we go. It's a rich, rich life. And I've grown so accustomed to it. 

Yet like the rich man in the story, I sense there is something more. 

And like the rich man, I've oscillated between praising Jesus beyond my actual experience of him and wordlessly cursing him with my own defeat when he bids me come follow him to places I can't fathom going. 

I'd like to think that the story continues and the rich man has his "with God it is possible" ending. He might have needed time to walk away from Jesus, to re-evaluate, to fully absorb the gravity of this decision. He might have needed to stop that conversation in its tracks. To replay the conversation in the comfort and isolation of his lavish home. To embrace once more that nagging feeling that compelled him to seek the Good Teacher's advice in the first place.

I hope this is how the story ends. For the rich man in Luke in A.D. 30. and for the rich woman typing at her laptop in 2016.

Next week: What are you looking for? (John 1:38)

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