“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.” (Mark 10:17-22 (ESV)
“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
A couple weeks ago the pope was in town, so to speak. It was brought to my attention that he said even an atheist could be saved if he was good. It wasn’t in so many words, but that was the gist of what he had said. This somewhat highlights that as we come into the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 not a whole lot has changed regarding the gulf between Lutheran and Roman Catholic understandings of Justification, despite that rather dumb document signed by the LWF and Roman Catholics some sixteen years ago. Mostly the pope said do good and we’ll see each other in heaven. This story of Christ, and the young rich man shows how impossible this statement is.
Be good and do good are inextricably linked. We sin because we are sinners, as Christians washed clean in the blood of the lamb, we do good because we are good, having been justified and sanctified, that is made good in the eyes of God by the death and resurrection of his son which we were joined to in baptism. But you can’t do good without being good. Good trees produce good fruits, but an apple tree cannot produce oranges if it wants to, bad trees simply do not produce good fruits. And the only thing that can make a bad tree good is Jesus Christ, because no one is good except God alone.
God is good. All the time as the saying goes. God is good. Jesus challenges this young man. The man feels distress. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is what he asks the “good teacher”. The man doesn’t know that Jesus is God. The man takes it for granted that Jesus is just a wise and learned man, what the world calls a good teacher, good according to worldly standards. Just a man. The question is meant to ask the man if he is going to acknowledge the divinity of the man standing in front of him, and to come to grips with himself and his own failings. They should be apparent but they aren’t. He is blinded by his worldly standards of good and what it means to keep the commandments, even whilst being plagued with doubt.
When Jesus rattles off the list of second table commandments the man thinks he has done them from his youth, from the earliest days that he knew to do them. The list is curious for its paraphrase of the ninth and tenth commandments of do not defraud. Today we would tend to think of covet as mere desire, and defrauding we would classify as stealing, but coveting is scheming to get your neighbors things in a way which seem right by the law, perhaps citing imminent domain so you can build a shopping mall where his house is. Perhaps creating or exploiting a situation where he is forced to give up his goods so you can pick them up cheap. But these are things we break in thought word and deed as sinners. Jealousy and envy taking root within our soul we sit and imagine what it might be like…. How incredible it is. Where does this come from? Perhaps it is this that prompts this man to ask Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Doing the law was not enough to calm the distress of his soul. No matter how good he was, something was lacking. There just isn’t any certainty to be found. The question is, have I been good enough? What a rotten question. It was this question that haunted Luther his whole time in Roman Catholicism. It is this question that haunts our neighbors more often than we ever know. Luther throughout his famous Greater Commentary on Galatians, a hallmark of reformation theology, calls this uncertainty a monster, a behemoth. It plagues a soul and drives it to despair, the despair driving to other great shame and vice, adultery, theft, and drunkenness, murder and a disrespect for one’s mother and father, perhaps themselves weighed down by despair, great shame and vice. No there won’t be found any certainty in the law, because there isn’t any salvation to be found there for us who are not good. If one could in fact be good apart from the death and resurrection of Christ he could save himself, but then how would a good person who honors his earthly mother and father, disrespect his creator, his father in heaven and throw away as trash the redemption wrought for us in the death and resurrection of Christ? How could a good person scorn such a gift from the Father?
No, our salvation is in this, that God is good. It is God who is good, so good that he even forgives sinners. God is good in that he promises salvation to us on behalf of his Son whom he gave into death for the world out of love that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life. God is good and his goodness knows no bounds, his love is limitless. No one is good but God alone, and oh, how good he is. He doesn’t save us out of any worthiness or merit within us, any more than he gives us our daily bread based on any earthly or worldly merit or worthiness. He does it all out of diving fatherly goodness and mercy, because he is our good Father and he knows so much more how to give his children good gifts. He is good, and so is his word that he gave to you in baptism, so is his word that he gives to you in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord Amen.