Okay, now to the interesting issue around the term Good. The Rich man calls Jesus, “Good Teacher”—again the Rich man is not being disingenuous, here—and Jesus quickly parries with, “Why do you call me Good? No one is good except one, namely, God.” Wow! Why did Jesus say this?
Firstly, Jesus wanted the rich man to cool his jets, and consider what he is really asking.
Second, Jesus is making a clear declaration of the fundamental nature of God. If God is Good, in fact the definition of Good, and therefore the only true embodiment of Good, then if His kingdom will ultimately be where God dwells with us, the basis of that Kingdom must be Good. In other words Jesus has already answered the Rich man’s question: “There ain’t nothing you can do, because only God is Good.” As we shall see, Jesus doesn’t leave the Rich man there, nor does He leave Jesus’ disciples there; but we must understand that this whole encounter pivots on the concept of Good.
Another reason for pointing out that only God is Good is so the rich man and all of us can see how incredible God truly is—can you say, I can only fall at His feet? Despite all of the state of depravity we are all in that places an insurmountable chasm between us and God, because of His infinite Goodness, God still reveals Himself to us through His son, Jesus the Christ. The Bible talks about the how God is completely unapproachable and shrouded in darkness—not evil, disorder, or chaos, but infinite incomprehensibility. Yet this infinite God has revealed Himself to us, and opened His eternal kingdom to us through His son. All because God is Good. Reflect back on a key prophecy concerning Jesus and you will begin to understand the extent of His goodness:
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you – from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him. This accords with what happened at Horeb in the day of the assembly. You asked the Lord your God: “Please do not make us hear the voice of the Lord our God any more or see this great fire any more lest we die.” The Lord then said to me, “What they have said is good. I will raise up a prophet like you for them from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth and he will speak to them whatever I command. I will personally hold responsible anyone who then pays no attention to the words that prophet speaks in my name.” (Deut. 18:15-19) [NET]
By telling the rich man only God is Good, it might help him see how really audacious his question is, and how the Good God is to reveal himself to him and then open His kingdom to him and the rest of us.
Having, as I am suggesting, pivoted the discussion on Good, Jesus will now explain what that means for the Rich man, Jesus’ disciples, and all of us who would be dwellers of His kingdom.
Jesus begins with laying out five of the ten words –what we call the ten commandments—that God gave Moses. Jesus also adds a prohibition against cheating one’s neighbor. I don’t know why, but I suspect it’s because so many rich people in His time (and ours) got there through cheating their neighbor (e.g., Matthew, or Zacchaeus). Jesus does this to show that the kingdom operates in terms of justice. We have unfortunately come to understand justice in the distributive sense-- that is, everyone is paid their due either good or bad. But this is not justice. Justice really speaks to a right order. The world and God’s kingdom were created to operate in a right order. As part of this overall right order is the right order of His image bearers—us human beings. The right order must start with a proper relationship with God (yet another reason for bringing up that only God is Good) so we can then effectively relate with each other. The five Words specifically speak to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The unmentioned first four Words speak to “Love the Lord God with all your soul, mind and strength.” The point to be understood here is justice provides the framework by which love operates. Love is not love if it attempts to operate autonomously from justice. True love must act from justice.
On the other hand, as we shall soon see, justice cannot be devoid of love. Christ begins with the five Words because that is where God began with Israel. The Law provides a picture of what the more abstract yet critical aspect of God’s kingdom life is. Justice is like the frame of the house, while love is what fills in and populates the house. The kingdom of heaven is not just a matter of a series of negative commands: don’t do this and don’t do that. This was the fatal error of the man who buried his one talent. Who, speaking to his returning master, said, “I know you are a hard man….” What did Jesus tell us happened to that man? It was the basis the Pharisees established. It is also the extreme legalism by which some Christians try to operate. We must act in justice, but justice is not the complete story. Justice is an essential but not sufficient aspect of the kingdom.
The rich man tells Jesus he has faithfully obeyed these rules—that is, in the negative sense of not breaking prohibitions, he has walked in the kingdom. And Jesus doesn’t argue with him. In fact, it says Jesus loved him. Clearly, Jesus saw a malleable heart in this rich man, and had compassion on him.
But justice alone doesn’t cut it. The kingdom is not only about avoiding things, it is about positive actions. It is about doing something. So Jesus tells the rich man he lacks one other thing: “go sell all you have, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” This is love acting in justice; indeed, it is love acting for justice; it is mercy! Jesus is saying that the kingdom is grounded in justice but is completed through the action of love that is mercy. You cannot have love without justice or visa versa, without losing both. Very quickly and succinctly Jesus lays out the basis of the kingdom of God as being justice and mercy in tension. We see this echoed in His response to the Pharisees in Matt. 12:7 and 23:23.
In this time when the kingdom of God has not yet been completed, but stands alongside the kingdom of darkness, the concept of justice and mercy will operate (when the kingdom has fully come, we will no longer speak of justice and mercy, only love in tension with holiness). We as kingdom dwellers are to be a light in this world; we are to move things from a disordered state (i.e., unjust state) to the right ordered state (i.e., just state), and we do this by acting mercifully—that is, by holy love. The greatest mistake I see today in the church is the attempt to bring about justice by imposing justice on a world unable to practice it. No, God brought us to a state of justice, through the singular act of mercy on the cross—we love because God first loved us. This is what I think St. Paul meant writing in Romans 2:1-4:
“Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth against those who practice such things. And do you think, whoever you are, when you judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you have contempt for the wealth of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, and yet do not know that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?” [NET]
Therefore, Jesus is telling the rich man that while it is right and proper that he has acted justly, it must be coupled with mercy. Because the rich man has been given much, God expects him to give much as a proper expression of mercy. And this mercy, which is love, will work to bring justice—the right order—back to the world, so sinners might see the contrast, and the revelation can lead them to consider their own sinfulness (unjust state). Such is what it means to be a dweller of God’s kingdom.
Ah, but one piece is still missing; and it is the critical piece. Jesus said after all of this, “Then come and follow me.” There it is. Because only God is good, and good demands this tension of mercy/justice, then the only way we can remain in God’s kingdom is to live through Jesus—that is, trusting Him by completely surrendering ourselves to Him. We will develop this more later.
See what Jesus has done here. Only God is good. To walk in His kingdom where He dwells with us means we must be good, which is to live squarely within the tension of mercy and justice. But that can only happen if we live through Jesus—walk unconditionally with Jesus by trusting Him by surrendering ourselves utterly to Him.
Where have we seen this definition of Good before? We find it in Micah 6:8:
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.[NET]