Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.
While the Gospel of Luke informs us this man was a “ruler,” the Gospel of Mark reveals he was running – Mark is funny this way about little vivid details. He also has a few other little details. only he comments how the man knelt before Jesus. He later notes how Jesus loved the man, and only Mark has Jesus’ repetition of the “how hard for a rich man” comment, introduced by the interesting “Children”: “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!”
Perhaps the most interesting textual variance comes between Mark and Matthew. Mark along with Luke pose the question this way, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Matthew poses it this way, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
That sets up how Jesus responds. Mark and Luke have Him responding, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.” Matthew has Jesus responding, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.”
Honestly, Jesus’ response in Mark and Luke make more sense. It makes sense to probe what is meant by saying “Good teacher,” if God alone is good. The obvious underlayment of the text is that Jesus, being good, must be God. In Matthew, by contrast, Jesus seems to state that only God – or one who is good – can teach about doing good. Again, at first glance this challenges us, and it could lead us to conclude the version of Mark and Luke are more authentic.
But just to put a plug in for Matthew’s account – it is the work of the Holy Spirit after all – it does force us contemplate how even the teaching of what is good falls short when taught by man. This in turn undermines an entire regime of pro-Greek philosophical posing – among many conservatives and traditionalists even today – about “the Good.” The ancient philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, and that ilk – are set up as teachers of “the Good,” and we joining in on that conversation is said to be a worthy project. As far as brain food goes – and as a way better project than diluting “the Good” in a post-modern “beyond good and evil” grey mush – it’s a worthy pursuit, especially when it’s all we have as far as a political foundation goes. But as far as the soul goes, and eternal salvation goes, Jesus’ response rings loud, “Why do you ask me (or Plato, or Aristotle, or any mere man (“mere” being a key word)) about what is good when only God is good.”
Others teaching “the Good” are just the blind leading the blind, sinners leading sinners, spouters of nonsense – perhaps this is why the Greek philosophers never really produced anything of lasting note save ancient philosophy departments and Thomism. Heck, the Arabs fist had Aristotle for centuries and look at them. But dialoguing about “the Good” is certainly good calisthenics for the brain, and again, a way better exercise than the ideological asserting that passes for philosophy today.
Plato, Aristotle, nor the rabbis could properly teach about what is good. Moses as a spokesmen for God could relay the Law, but as far as teaching it, explaining it as a guide for eternal salvation, there was no one, but God. Setting up this absolute, it’s interesting that after Jesus relays what everyone knew about “what is good” – that is, the Ten Commandments – He adds more. Who can do that but God alone? Only God can amend the teaching about “what is good.”
Now to the easier version of Mark and Luke. Why does running-kneeling man call Jesus good? Only God is good.
On one hand, this puts us on safe, solid biblical theology. As St. Paul says of mankind in his climactic phrasing from Romans 3: “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.” Amen and amen, no one should leave a Sunday service not knowing and confessing this. Jesus substantiates this theology in His words this week, but also in comments like, “If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…” The total depravity of man is clear from Jesus and the entire Scriptures.
On the other hand, the Scriptures also teach, “The earth is full of the goodness of the LORD.” This in turn is rooted in the conclusion after the creation, that everything was very good. If no one is good but God alone, how can the creation, among which are humans, be said to be full of the goodness of the Lord?
We need to wrestle with this conundrum because the Gnostics would love Jesus’ words, “No one is good but God alone.” They would apply that to the whole of creation: “See, the world and everything in it is evil!”
But Jesus isn’t talking about the physicality of man, or the materiality of the earth. Everything God created is indeed good, including every atom of every human being. Hitler was constructed gloriously, intricately made. And when we behold Hitler, we see something wonderfully made. Isn’t that why we pray for enemies? Because they are creations of God made in His image?
What, then, is Jesus talking about? Clearly He’s taking about the one thing that is beyond our physicality, our will. Our will is only activated to choose that one area of creation which is “beyond” or “outside” of God’s good created order, that is, the evil hanging on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Use of will is what directed man toward evil, toward something beyond this material realm. And all man’s children inherit that orientation toward the “not-world,” that is, toward what is not. On account of that, we have no capability to speak on what is good, or to be called good.
But Jesus can. Because Jesus is God. Jesus brings back an anthropology in which man’s will falls in line with His physicality: it’s in complete submission to the Lord. “Not my will, but thine be done.” Now there is one who is good. He is the righteous one who presented in His complete person the “revealed righteousness of God apart from the Law,” the righteousness for which we hunger and thirst, the righteousness which we seek first.
Running-kneeling man was so close – perhaps that’s why it says Jesus loved him. He ran to Jesus, showing enthusiasm. He knelt before Jesus, showing submission and reverence. He knew the commandments and kept them. He even inadvertently knew the Gospel, that Jesus was God, the good man who alone can teach and embody goodness. Jesus loved him this we know, for Mark’s Gospel tells us so! Yet he went away sad.
What a warning to us.