“Why do you call me good? Only God is good.” This is what our Lord Jesus said to the wealthy young man in today’s gospel lesson. [Matthew 19:16-26]
Why did our Lord say this? Was He denying His inherent deity as the Son of God? I recall a conversation I once had with a Jehovah’s Witness at my front door who tried to use this verse as “proof” that Jesus couldn’t possibly be God. Talking to me as if I were a slow-witted child he asked, “Now, you believe that God is good, right?” Yes, I agreed, God is good. “That’s right!” he said. “And so if God is good and Jesus said ‘don’t call Me good’ then how can Jesus be God?”
The guy seemed very pleased with himself until I pointed out that he had deliberately misread the verse. Jesus didn’t say, “Don’t call Me good” but instead had carefully asked the young man, “Why do you call Me good?” I then asked him if he thought it was right or wrong to call Jesus good. He wasn’t sure what to say, so I continued, “I think we would both have to agree that Jesus is good. That’s why mournful sinners were drawn to Him, that’s why righteous people loved Him, that’s why even His enemies were forced to invent false charges against Him at His trial. We can’t even say that Jesus was relatively good in comparison to the rest of humanity, because the scriptures testify that there was absolutely no sin or unrighteousness in Him whatsoever. Jesus was and is entirely and completely good, with a goodness utterly indistinguishable from God’s goodness.”
I then concluded, “If Jesus is undeniably good, and we both agree that only God is good, then who must this Jesus be?”
Well I’m sorry to say that the unhappy man at my doorstep lost interest in our discussion after this and soon left. But returning to our gospel lesson, we can see that Jesus was by no means denying His deity to the rich young man, or His goodness. If anything, He was confirming it. Reading this verse correctly we can see that our Lord was simply trying to make this man slow down and put the pieces of the puzzle together as to who this “good Jesus” must truly be.
And why would He do that in this particular case? There were many people who came to Jesus, mostly asking for healing, and He usually healed them with only a brief word about the importance of faith or of living without sin. But here Jesus spoke of much more, granting a sort of “mini-Theophany” by way of a subtle revelation of His divinity. Why did He do this? The answer might be found in the fact that this young man’s request was different from anyone else’s. He came, seeking not physical healing, but salvation.
“What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” Please notice the wisdom in our Lord’s response. He first spoke of the need to follow the commandments of God, or in other words, of the necessity to not bring further harm to one’s soul by doing those things which are contrary to eternal life. Many Christians today have a rather cavalier attitude about sin, feeling that as long as they are forgiven their actions are more or less irrelevant. But the effects of sin aren’t marked on some scoreboard in heaven, but upon our souls. Righteousness matters, and the commandments of God are important to us, or else Jesus wouldn’t have said so.
Now this young man claimed to have kept all the commandments from his youth. This was apparently not a false boast, for we are told in Mark’s account that Jesus looked upon him and loved him when he said this. From Matthew’s gospel we can see that the young man was even further blessed to recognize that the commandments alone were not enough to save him, and so he asked with urgency, “What do I still lack?”
Have you ever thought to ask God, “Lord, what do I still lack?” Most of us would rather tell God what we think is missing from our lives, and be miserable until He gives it to us. But what a bold thing it is to ask, “Lord, what do I still lack?” We can begin to see why Jesus loved this man. And indeed, here was a fellow about as ready as any person could be to receive the answer from Jesus Christ as to what he needed to gain eternal life.
And Jesus told him, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven. And come, take up the cross, and follow Me”. At this command, the man became sad and went away grieving, for he had great possessions.
Our Lord knew He was asking a difficult and unexpected thing of this young man. That is why He first graciously allowed the man a certain spiritual insight into His divine authority. “It is not simply your ‘good teacher’ asking this of you; it is your good God. Follow Me in both life and death, and you will live in My kingdom forever.” The inescapable tragedy of this story is that even with this kind and wonderful revelation, the man still turned his back on Jesus and walked away.
Before we are tempted to think that Jesus was too harsh, notice that the young man didn’t go away angry or offended. He went away grieving. You see, when people think they are being treated unfairly they generally get mad. But when they are asked to do what they know is right, but find that they are unwilling to make the sacrifice, their souls are filled with sorrow.
This is a grief that many Christians know all too well. There may be some impediment in our lives that we know Christ has asked us to give up, to leave behind, or to walk away from that we might follow Him in freedom. Or perhaps there is some good thing He has asked us to do that we are simply unwilling to obey. No matter how much we try to excuse, justify, or distract ourselves, that thing remains as a kind of barricade between us and our good Jesus. Sorrow of soul is the natural result, and this seems to be what was taking place in this young man’s heart.
My brethren, we were created to enjoy an unhindered communion with God, though the path to that through our spiritual darkness is long and difficult. If we must mourn in this life, let it be over our present fallen condition, tempered with hope in God’s mercy and healing. Let us not needlessly add to our sorrow by any stubborn refusal to follow Jesus and obey Him. If we will be careful to do what is right, one day our mourning will be turned into joy, our tears into laughter. We can trust the good Jesus, our God, to save us and have mercy upon us.