Jesus and Goodness (Mark 10:17-22)
Sermon Audio: https://qbc.org/sermons/666824--jesus-and-goodness
17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 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.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Would you consider yourself a good person? If so, why? Maybe you look at what you do for others, your care for your children, your spouse. Maybe it is because you care for the environment, volunteer or donate money to charities, or go to church.
I wonder what your moral evaluation would be of someone described like this:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone…! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.
So Charles Dickens describes “Ebenezer Scrooge” in his beloved story, A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is a miserly, old creditor whose obsession with money has driven out any other space in his heart for love, laughter, or mercy. The story describes how he is visited by three ghostly specters in the night, each with a lesson. The first is the spirit of Christmas-past, who shows Scrooge where he went astray as a young man. The second is the spirit of Christmas-present, who shows Scrooge what his greed has caused him to currently miss out on. And the last, the ghost of Christmas-future, shows his grim and ignominious future, if he will not change his ways. Scrooge, returned to the present, is cut to the heart and overwhelmed with gratitude at an opportunity for a second-chance. He becomes jolly, generous, and begins to use his wealth to help the poor.
The story of Ebenezer is a heart-warming story about the dangers of wealth and the joys of generosity. In our text today we read of another famed story of a man of great wealth who is confronted about his plight and warned of the grim future that awaits him lest he repent. The man does not appear by any means to be as cold and calculating as Scrooge, but is entwined in the icy grip of wealth nonetheless. But, unlike Dickens’ happy Christmas Carol, this man does not take advantage of this opportunity but walks on to the dark future set out before him.
While it is easy to see that Scrooge is a cruel, bad man and most certainly not a good man, it is more difficult to see in this story. The young man appears sincere, pious, even humble—and yet, Jesus, the great doctor of the soul, is going to diagnose that this man, like an Ebenezer Scrooge, as someone else who is not a good man. How could that be? Jesus will show us in our text by revealing the source, standard, and problem of goodness.
The Source of Goodness
As Jesus is about to set out on “his journey” (towards Jerusalem) he is interrupted by a man running to him and falling in front of him, pleading, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). Here we are just told that he is a “man” but in Matthew’s account he is referred to as a “young man” (Matt 19:20) and Luke refers to him as a “ruler” (Luke 18:18), which is where the title “rich young ruler” comes from. This young man likely knows that Jesus often does not stay in one city for very long so he literally runs to Jesus, desperate to hear from this “Good Teacher” about the most pressing question he has on his mind.
His question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life,” should not necessarily be read as an assumption that he is trying to earn his own salvation by his good works, not anymore than the Philippian jailer who falls before Paul and says, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). That assumption may be in his heart, but we cannot know for sure. What we appear to have here is a genuine, earnest, even desperate man, eager to obtain eternal life. What is “eternal life”? It doesn’t merely mean to live forever, but refers to the quality of life as well as quantity. Eternal life is the life that persists through the grave (quantity) but is also life that is qualitatively superior to this current life—what Jesus describes as “life to the full” (John 10:10).
Jesus’ response is surprising, “Why do you call me ‘good’? No one is good except God alone,” Mark 10:18. What does that mean? In all of the Jewish literature we have from the 1st and 2nd century, we have no instance of a student referring to a rabbi as “good teacher,” so it is a peculiar title to be used and Jesus seems to emphasize that. Jesus isn’t denying that He is “good.” He simply asks the man why he called Him good, since no one but God is good. Jesus knows that this man certainly is not aware of His true identity, so by his use of the word “good” he likely reveals that his definition of “good” does not match Jesus’. I doubt Jesus walked around His whole life, slapping the wrist of anyone who ever used the adjective “good” to describe anything but God (cf. Luke 6:45). So why does He make a point of it here?
Because Jesus can see into the hearts of men and can pin-point their biggest dilemmas, can hone in on what are their biggest obstacles to receiving Him as Lord. As we will see, this young man, in a way, assumes that he is a fairly good person and Jesus wants him to see that he isn’t.
I wonder if you have ever heard anyone defend why they believe they are a good person before. Almost everyone you talk to believes they are a good person, and they might even believe that most people are generally good. Maybe you aren’t a Christian here today and you have assumed that you, more or less, are a good person! I’m guessing, however, that you would admit that there are some people out there who are not good: murderers, kidnappers, dictators, the “Hitler’s” and “Jeffrey Dahmer’s”. In fact, probably one of the assurances you may have that you are a good person is the fact that you aren’t like those people. You aren’t an Ebenezer Scrooge! But the problem is that we all have a sliding scale of what defines “bad” and “good”. There are the extreme’s that are easy to comfort ourselves with, but what about the many, many issues that so many of us are divided over? About half of Americans today believe that by their ardent defense of conserving our national identity and tradition, they are a “good” person, while the other half believe that by liberating ourselves from that identity and traditions, they are a “good” person. There is a great deal of talk about ‘justice’ today. The great movement of our time is a movement to root out social injustice, which of course, is something I as a Christian care deeply about. But it does not take long to realize that how we define the term “justice” can result in radically different outcomes.
So, how do we know who is right?
Where Does Morality Come From?
If two people lay sticks of different lengths next to each other, and passionately claim that their stick is in fact the proper length of a yard, how are you to know with certainty which one is correct? Well, I need to go find an official yardstick to lay down next to them to judge. And friends, if we need this for something as simple as a measurement, how much more do we need this for our morality, for our own understanding of goodness? So let’s examine common ideas of where our idea morality comes from:
“Don’t let anyone tell you who you are supposed to be.” If you believe that morality is something you personally create, what right do you have to tell anyone else that what they are doing is “wrong”? Is rape wrong? Is torture wrong? Is racism wrong? Well, if all morality is “in the eye of the beholder,” all you can say about those things is that “they are wrong for you,” but you cannot foist your own moral standards on anyone else, at least not with any legitimate reason for them to listen to you. You can bludgeon them over the head and force them to accept your standards through pressure and intimidation or deceit, but you cannot say to the, “That is evil, that is wrong.”
If you believe that morality is something that is simply the by-product of popular consensus then you will always be a prisoner to your own cultural values. If I am a white man living in the South during Jim Crow and I burn a cross in a black man’s yard, am I doing something wrong? If so, why? Wouldn’t that be me acting in accordance with my own cultural values? Sure, other cultures may disagree with it (for example, the black man), but I am simply responding to the morality that has been created by the popular consensus around me—can I even be held morally responsible for my actions?
Christianity, in contrast, teaches that our understanding of “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad” come from God Himself. Thus, the standard of morality is unchanging and objective. Regardless of what time or culture you are in, what is right and wrong do not change. Thus, Christians have the resources to call other people to repentance—because the standard is not our own personal creation. We also have the ability to criticize the sub-cultures and wider cultures we are a part of when they deviate from God’s norms—because the standard is not a byproduct of our culture.
Why is our world in the state it is in? When Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident, gave a speech in 1983 about why all of the horrific calamities, war-crimes, and cruelties of the 20th century happened, he simply stated, “Men have forgotten God. That is why all this has happened.” And friends, as we look at our country and our community and are baffled by the anger, by the rage, by the violence, we can diagnosis the problem similarly: “Men have forgotten God.” Men, of course, pay God lip-service, claim they are doing His work, but they all are not looking to God as the source of their morality. We are as the book of Judges describes, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” Judges 17:6.
The Standard of Goodness
We get a jarring glimpse of God’s standard for goodness in Jesus’ pithy comment: “No one is good except God alone.” God is not only the source of goodness, but He is also the standard of “good.” And we see that He alone meets this standard. But, the rest of Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler paints in this abstract truth. Jesus exhorts the man, “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,’” Mark 10:19. Jesus is quoting from the second half of the ten commandments, the section that emphasizes how one treats other people.
The young man eagerly replies, “And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth,” Mark 10:20. If the man is telling the truth, that is an astonishing claim. Perhaps he is exaggerating some, maybe, were he to be forcibly literal he would say, “Teacher, on the whole, all these I have pursued sincerely from my youth.” Some people interpret this man’s response as a blatant claim of self-righteousness, that he is lying. But Jesus does not respond to the man the typical way he responds to self-righteous religious people (see Matt 23). So, were the man wholly hypocritical we would expect Jesus to be more severe—but Jesus isn’t. So, we can assume that this man was genuinely pious, sincere, and devout.
“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me,” Mark 10:21. The man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus gave him directions on how to follow Him—following Jesus is the path to eternal life. But there is something blocking his path to Jesus—His wealth. And Jesus, loving this man, is giving him an opportunity to set that weight aside and embrace eternal wealth in knowing Him.
What should draw our attention now is the reality that despite the fact that this man allegedly has kept the second-half of the ten commandments his entire life—a remarkable feat—it still is not enough to gain eternal life. Jesus tells the man: you lack something. No one is good except God alone. The man himself is obviously aware that his own righteousness is not enough, otherwise he never would have approached Jesus to ask Him this question in the first place! But Jesus takes what has been lurking in the back of his mind and pulls it forward, front and center: here is your problem, here is where you lack. You see, because God is the source of goodness, that means that He also is the standard of goodness. And what is God’s standard? Well, how good is God? He is perfect.
As you think about your own “goodness” in light of God’s standard, the question that arises is this: do you measure up?
“Yea, yea, I know that I’m not as good as God, but come on! Nobody is! I’m still a good person!”
Really? How good are you? And is it enough? Maybe we can admit that no one can be as good as God, and we simply set the standard at: be as good as you can be. Let's take into account that we are limited, finite creatures with flaws; we aren't perfect. Let's lower the bar to just "doing our best we can do." Even still, is there anyone in this room who believes that they have honestly lived their lives doing the best they could do? Can anyone admit that even in this week they have always tried their hardest to do what is right, and say no to what is wrong? Even when we grade on a curve, we still fall short.
“Maybe,” you think, “God will realize that we all are blowing it and He will just cut us some slack. At least I am trying!” But, friends, if we can acknowledge that there is such a thing as “bad,” that there are some people who are definitively and without excuse “not good,” then that means that we believe that there is a line drawn somewhere that separates the “good” from the “bad.” Jesus certainly believes that, He affirms that there is a distinction between “good” and “evil.” But, because God is the source and standard of goodness, He gets to determine where that line is drawn. And friends, His standard is unyielding: perfection. And James tells us, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it,” James 2:10. Even if we could hypothetically keep 99% of the law and only fail 1% of the time, we are still guilty of breaking the law. God's goodness, His perfection is a serious problem for us.
The Problem of Goodness
How does the man respond to Jesus’ offer? “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions,” Mark 10:22. The man, rather than seeing the value of heavenly treasure is absorbed with the idea of giving up earthly ones. So, like a child playing with mud pies who ignores a holiday to the beach, he forsakes his opportunity at eternal life in order to make his temporal one more comfortable. But remember friends, this is no hedonist or indulgent sinner. This is a respectable, moral, law-abiding Jew who is eager to seek the kingdom of God. If this man is unable to measure up, what are we to do? Chaucer said, “If the gold rusts, what shall the iron do?”
The next time we look at this passage we will delve more deeply into why this man was unable to take Jesus up on his offer, but for now it is illustrative to show us that the from one angle God’s goodness presents a serious problem for us. Paul Washer, an evangelist known for shocking audiences with arresting truths, once opened up a sermon by asking, “Do you know what the most terrifying reality in all of Scripture is? It is that God is good.” God is good? Why would that be terrifying? That sounds like great news, why would that be bad in any way? “Because,” Washer goes on, “we are not.” When you see the totality of the holiness of God, the perfection of it, and the beauty of it, the constancy of it, it will shine a searching light on just how far short we have fallen from that same standard.
If we are at work and have to give a presentation on something and the person who goes before us does a phenomenal job and we know that there is no way we can measure up to them, doesn't that leave us feeling anxious and embarrassed? If we show up at a party dressed casually and are shocked to discover that this was a black-tie affair, aren't we ashamed at our appearance? We hate having our imperfections set aside someone else's seeming perfections. But dear friends, if these social faux pas leave us feeling ashamed, what will we do on that last day when the spiritual cataracts fall from our eyes and the veil of this world is pulled back and there sits the holy, beautiful, and terrifying God in all of His majesty? What fig-leaves will you reach for to cover your own sin before the blazing eyes that see all? What will you do?
The Answer of Goodness
What sets Christianity apart from every other world religion is in the answer it gives to this problem. Far from keeping "goodness" an abstract ethical concept or mere list of religious rules to follow, "goodness" in Christianity comes down and becomes a human being. When the rich young ruler calls Jesus the "good teacher" he speaks better than he knows. Only God is good, and Jesus is good because Jesus is God. In Christianity, "goodness" is not merely an unreachable goal that stays far away from sinners like us, residing in heaven. Goodness takes on human flesh and dwells among us. And when He draws near to people who are not good, He isn't repulsed, He isn't annoyed. His heart warms to them, He is drawn in, He is patient. Jesus' goodness doesn't separate Him from us, but compels Him to draw close. And even more than that.
Jesus' goodness drives Him to die on a cross, to pay for the sins of His people who failed to meet His standard. Jesus' goodness leads Him to suffer the consequences that we deserved, so that we who repent and turn to Christ in faith can now be treated as if we were good, righteous. Romans tells us, "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us," Romans 5:6-8. It is while we were weak, sinful, wayward...not good, that Christ died for us.
- The first step in the path towards eternal life is to recognize that we are not good. We must be disenfranchised with our own morality--we need the loving reminder from God that only God is good. We have to see our need, otherwise we will never see our Savior.
- The second step in the path is to follow Jesus. We must (1) realize our own sin and then (2) turn to what Jesus has to offer for us as the remedy to our sin.
- If you are already a Christian, you should be encouraged to remember that God did not choose to save you because He thought you were impressive. Jesus wasn't looking for the best and the brightest to pull together an all-star team. He was looking for weak and wounded sinners who knew that they were totally without hope apart from Christ. So, remember, your inclusion in God's family never resided in your own goodness but in God's love. God is not impressed with you; He just loves you, and that is far, far better.