“‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus asked him. ‘No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not defraud; honor your father and mother.’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these from my youth.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever gotten exactly what you wanted, but felt like there was still something missing? I remember saving my money when I was little to buy a Super Nintendo. My folks wisely didn’t give me any help with it. I saved and saved for months. Then the day finally came. My mom took me to GameStop and I made the big purchase. A brand new Super Nintendo and one game. I played through the game quickly over the next couple of weeks…and that was it. Then it just felt kind of empty. Now what? One of the things we see in the story of the man asking Jesus about eternal life is that sometimes this kind of let down can happen on a much larger scale.
As we talked about yesterday, as Jesus was getting ready to travel from one place to another, a man came running up to him, throwing all decorum to the wind, and asked Him a question: How do I get eternal life? As we said then, this is one of those questions everyone asks at some point in our lives.
Now, living as a follower of Jesus on this side of the cross, we know the answer to the question. If we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in our heart that God raised Him from the dead, we will be saved. It really is that simple…but that’s my sermon for Sunday. I won’t spoil it for you anymore.
Knowing that, though, it is really interesting to see how Jesus responded to him. First, He challenged his calling Jesus “good.” This seems a bit odd because the man was likely just throwing the honorarium in as part of His title as a means of showing Jesus respect. Jesus’ quick retort would have likely caught him off guard. “No one is good but God alone.” To his credit, the man paid attention, and the next time he addressed Jesus, he just called Him “Teacher.”
I don’t honestly think Jesus was trying to be smart with the man. I think He was offering a theological challenge and a pointer to His divine identity. The statement is true. No one is good except God. All goodness flows from Him. We are not good on our own. You have never met a good person in your life. We are sinners. Where we have any goodness in us, it is a reflection of His goodness. At the same time, Jesus didn’t refuse the identifier either. He was asking the man if He really understood who Jesus was.
That’s not the main focus of Jesus’ response, though. That comes next. In the thinking of the day, righteousness and eternal life were found in one place: the Law. If you kept the Law, you were set. If you didn’t, you weren’t. It was that simple in their minds. So, Jesus met the man on the terms he no doubt had thought of for himself. He gave the man the answer he expected to get: Have you kept the Law? And, to his credit, the man affirms confidently that he has.
Now, we’ll talk more about what Jesus says next to the man next week, but there’s something really interesting here. The man answered confidently that he had kept the Law, which everyone understood to be the means of inheriting eternal life, since his youth. If that was the case, why was he asking Jesus this question? It almost seems like the man had done all of these things and worked really hard (and, as we learn from Matthew’s and Luke’s telling of this same story, his efforts had resulted in a pretty comfortable life for him to live), but, to quote Bono, he still hadn’t found what he was looking for.
Think about this for a minute. Remember that time in your life when you got what you wanted, but it still felt like something was missing. What was the lesson to learn there? Was it not this: Perhaps what you wanted wasn’t really what you needed. Or, to put that another way, you had a desire you needed to see fulfilled, but you were seeking its fulfillment in the wrong things. This man was on a genuine search for eternal life, and he had done all the things his culture told him to do in order to find it, but he was still coming up empty. He just didn’t feel like he had won the prize he sought. Thus he was still asking the question.
There’s a lesson here for us. The answer his culture gave him to the question of eternal life is different from the answer our culture gives us. On the other hand, it wasn’t really all that different after all. His culture told him that eternal life was something you could achieve after completing all of the requisite tasks. Do this, do that, and do it all well, and eternal life can be yours. Our culture tells us the same basic thing. Oh, sure, the list of tasks has changed rather dramatically, but the existence of a list in the first place has not. This is how people have generally always thought about eternal life: keep the rules and you’re in. The rules change, but the principle doesn’t. Rule keeping is the way to the good life. That’s what we are told and taught from incredibly early on. That kind of thinking is natural.
We keep on seeking. We manage to keep one set of rules, but don’t find the thing for which we seek. So we make up another set of rules and keep those instead. But they don’t prove any more capable of delivering our query than the last. So we make up another set of rules and keep those instead. Wash, rinse, repeat. Perhaps the reason this process fails us time and time again is that the good life is not found in rule keeping after all. Perhaps the good life is found through another set of means entirely. Becoming convinced of this, much less convincing others of this, is no small task, but it seems it should be made at least a bit easier by the fact that rule keeping is obviously not getting us there.
There’s one more thing here too. If you have found the path that really does lead to eternal life, and if you have someone around you who has not found the path as well, they’re searching for it. Even if it doesn’t look like it from the outside, they are still searching. Seems like it would be an awfully neighborly thing to do to give them some gentle pointers in the right direction; to perhaps share what you have learned with them. Maybe not, but I’ll bet if you were in their shoes, you’d want that done for you. Just some food for thought.