The Questions of Jesus: "Why do you call me good?"

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good?" No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.'" He replied and said to him, "Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, "You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:17–22)

The rich man asked an important question and he asks it of the right person. He is looking for the life that is not fleeting and he asks the increasingly famous teacher for help in finding it. But how far is he willing to go to receive what he seeks? He calls Jesus "good", but it appears that he has a preformed notion of what the "good" is. In this encounter with Jesus, he is confronted with the stark and potentially liberating truth: Jesus himself establishes what the "good" is, in obedience to God the Father. He can't be fit into our own categories; rather, we must fit into him.

The initial response Jesus gives is of course a recitation of the commandments, but it is equally obvious that he does not recite all of the commandments. In particular, he offers the man the commandments of the second tablet and not the first. The second tablet concerns those commandments which, elsewhere, Jesus gathers up in the command to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31). What he doesn't offer the man are the commandments concerning love of God. At least, that is, he doesn't give him those commandments right away.

The rich man observes the commandments of love of neighbor; he does not harm anyone. This is no small feat. Yet, Jesus wants more not just from him, but indeed for him. In one of the most beautiful and important little phrases in all of Scripture, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him" before telling him the one truly necessary thing. He must let go of what he clings to and give alms to the poor. He must transfer his heart from the things he treasures in this world to the treasure of heaven.

As Gary Anderson clearly and compellingly explains in his book Charityto give to the poor is an act of absolute fidelity to God. It is equal to all the commandments. Why? Because in giving alms you forsake providing security for yourself and entrust yourself to the security God provides, which is divine charity. To give yourself away in this manner is a definitive way of saying, "Yes, Lord, I believe that You alone are God, that Your name is holy, and that this world is your creation. You hold me, so I may give freely to the poor, whom you love. In giving to them, I give myself to You." 

We don't know what becomes of the rich man. All we know is what he looks like right then: he's sad as his mind moves to his many possessions. Actually, it might be best to say that his heart rests on his many possessions. These are his security, his foundation, his love. In love,  though, Jesus has told him the one truly necessary thing: eternal life is a matter of the heart. Let your heart rest in God alone, and then you will receive the treasure awaiting you in heaven. You, rich man, have to choose to allow yourself to love God, to abide in God's life. That's what's good.

Prayer: Good and Gracious God, liberate my heart so I may love you.

For more on the Rich Man, charity, and indifference, see the fourth chapter of my What Matters Most.