There is this perplexing little exchange that takes place between Jesus and a rich man as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem. In response to the man addressing him as “Good Teacher,” Jesus replies, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18)
Jesus’ words undermine one of our most basic assumptions; specifically, that there are “good people” and “bad people” in this world, and life is largely about living in such a way that we get to be counted among those who are “good.”
But no one is good, says Jesus, referring, apparently, to even himself.
So what did Jesus mean by this?
To be “good” in the sense that Jesus is referring to here is to be pure — essentially incapable of evil. Only God is good in this sense. We human beings are capable of doing some pretty awful things.
As their conversation proceeds, it becomes clear that the man would have been confident of his place among the “good” people. He informs Jesus that he has kept the commandments. In response, Jesus says something that has bewildered people for two thousand years:
“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
This instruction given to this particular man needs to be understood in the context of his assumption that he is, in fact, good. Jesus is inviting the man to discover that he’s just like every other poor slob.
When life is comfortable; when, for instance we have enough money so that we don’t have to worry about paying the bills or going hungry and homeless, it can be easy to convince ourselves that we would never do anything overtly cruel or mean-spirited — that there is only goodness and light within.
Take away the conditions that put us at ease, and we will likely discover that we are quite capable of all kinds of evil. And though we may pride ourselves for the hard work we put in to establish the comfortable conditions we enjoy, the truth of the matter is that most of what we enjoy came to us as a gift, also known as “grace.”
“There but for the grace of God go I.”
Or to put it another way, “No one is good but God alone.”
Lord Jesus, help us to yield up our arrogance so that we don’t need to go through a great fall to discover that we are, in fact, just another sinner saved by grace. Grant us humility to go with you to the cross. Amen.