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Why Do You Call Me Good?

When I was a kid, I was often puzzled by the way Jesus responded to people in the gospels. From callously telling someone to “let the dead bury their own dead” to calling a Samaritan woman a “dog” to saying that he didn’t come to bring peace but a sword, Jesus often seemed a bit obnoxious (at worst) and enigmatic (at best).

One such vexing encounter in the gospels that irritated me as a kid was Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler in Luke 18. The conversation starts innocently enough:

 Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

A perfectly reasonable question to ask of someone like Jesus, one would think, and a decently polite way of putting it. But Jesus’ response begins in typically exasperating fashion:

Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

Well, seriously Jesus. Give the guy a break! He’s just trying to open up a conversation! Can’t you take a compliment?! And what’s with this “No one is good but God” business. Not to put too fine (or Trinitarian) a point on it, but you kinda are God. And if we can’t call you good, then who exactly can we call good? Throw the poor guy a bone, for pity’s sake!

With the benefit of a few more years lived on the planet—a few more interactions with a few more people over longer periods of time, a few more opportunities to scrutinize my own cocktail of motivations and moral conduct in diverse circumstances—I now see Jesus’ encounter with the young ruler a bit differently. In an analogous way to Jesus’ baptism by John being less about repentance for sin than about symbolically aligning and identifying himself with fragile and fallen humanity, so perhaps this encounter is Jesus is making a broader statement about the complicated nature of all human declarations and performances of goodness.

I am convinced that Jesus sees and understands the human heart like no one else. He knows that our goodness is always conflicted, always self-interested, always at least partially about us. This was certainly the case of the rich young ruler who was looking for a cost-free way to preserve his wealth while procuring some eternal goodies. But it’s true in less obvious ways, too. We use the language of “good” and “bad” all the time, but we rarely bother to probe these terms as deeply as we ought to. Chief among our problems when it comes to goodness is that we simply cannot subtract ourselves from our attempts to be good or to evaluate goodness. We cannot help but construe the world in categories that are neat and clean and decisive, often understanding ourselves as virtuous and those who don’t share our views as misguided or ignorant or wicked.

Jesus knows that this is not how goodness works in the world, that it is not how we work in the world, that the human heart has never been quite so tidy. Jesus knew full well the truth of the prophet Jeremiah’s words:

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

This, I am convinced, is at least part of the reason why Jesus balks at this young man’s casual affixation of “good” language. Jesus knows that the human soul is a far murkier thing than the binary and often self-congratulatory terms we so easily throw around.

So what then?  Are we not permitted to speak of goodness and badness without endlessly qualifying our terms, losing ourselves and our language in morass of helpless grey? I don’t think so. But I am conivnced that at the very least we have to become more a bit more self-aware and self-critical in how we think about ourselves and a bit more nuanced in our public discourse.

One discipline that I have tried to adopt recently comes in the form of a series of questions. I try to ask these of myself whenever I’m having an instinctive reaction to any controversial issue where people of a wide range of perspectives are lining up the good guys and the bad guys, or when negative emotions begin to boil up in me in response to all those “wrong” people, or when I am tempted toward a kind of tribalistic cheerleading for those who represent what I think about this or that issue. These questions are little more than an attempt to be at least somewhat critical of my own views and my own responses in the midst of contentious situations where “good” and “bad” language and assumptions are flying around. They are very simple questions but I am increasingly convinced, very important ones in our polarized and polarizing times:

  • Why do I want this to be true of God or the world?
  • What need is this feeding in me?
  • What aspect of my own identity is my reaction reinforcing?
  • What sense of belonging in a club is it bolstering? 

These questions do not respresent some magical panacea that will resolve complex issues and relationships. They aren’t a substitute for hard thinking and difficult conversations. But at minimum, they force me to take a few vital steps back from my own real or imagined goodness or rightness and make the rather basic admission that I very often like the idea of being good (and being seen as good) quite a lot more than I do the goodness itself. I suspect I am not alone.

“Why do you call me good?” Perhaps in asking this question Jesus is inviting us to hold a mirror up to ourselves and ask the question, “Why do you imagine yourself to be good?” The question is a safeguard against the idolatry we are so prone to. It is so easy to make gods in our own image and we do it with cheerful (and often oblivious) regularity. It’s just as easy to make good in our own image.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Cheryl O'Donnell #

    Oh….hits home. Makes one think.
    Sure appreciate all your writings, Ryan.

    July 19, 2016
    • Thank you very much, Cheryl.

      July 20, 2016
  2. “I very often like the idea of being good (and being seen as good) quite a lot more than I do the goodness itself.” Touche.

    July 20, 2016
  3. I like those questions, Ryan. Now if only I can remember them for myself. 🙂 The story of the rich young man has troubled me over the years and I’ve never been able to find a satisfactory way to understand it. Your analysis is very enlightening and makes a great deal of sense. Well-written. Thank you.

    July 20, 2016
    • That’s among the reasons I write posts like this – to remind myself! I am uniquely skilled at (selectively) forgetting…

      Thanks for your kind words.

      July 20, 2016
  4. Kevin K #

    A quote from a Russian Novelist to add some (possibly unnecessary) gravitas to your very practical advice:

    “It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good.

    In the intoxication of youthful success I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.

    Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not though states, nor between classes, not between political parties either–but right thorough every human heart–and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an uprooted small corner of evil.” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. II, Pg. 615).

    July 20, 2016
    • I have this passage highlighted in my copy of the Gulag. Truth, exquisitely expressed and from the depths of human suffering.

      July 20, 2016
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Jesus asks the question because he recognizes the young man’s self congratulatory pride and his willingness to flatter those whom he might find useful in affirming his perceptions of self and God.

    The young man’s wealth is his idol. A wealth he has not earned. He is more dilettante than disciple. His arrogant self assessment breathtaking in its audacity. His humiliation swift and complete, when asked to take up HIS cross.

    The young man personifies the comfortable in every generation. Those who hear only their own voice and the voices of those with whom they fraternize.

    The voices they don’t hear are those of the Lord and those of the afflicted.

    Be wary of nuance. The truth is more simple and binary then we often will allow it to be. It is one of the reasons learned people struggle with faith. They wish the efforts of their intellect to hold authority over the simpler ethics of God.

    Faithful people, those who know the Lord, know it to be the other way around. The simpler, more accessible ethics of the Lord must always have final say over all human intellect.

    The last three paragraphs and your bullet points are good but not dependant upon the parable of the young man.

    Your misreading is due to common failing, particular to the young. Do not approach interpretation of the word and prophesy from an individual perspective. Yours or any one else’s. Do not encourage others to approach the Word in a similar way.

    Rather, convene with the Holy Spirit. If interpretation and prophesy are to be graced to you, the Lord will give you, “ears to hear.”

    You will understand yourself to have, “heard” when you have a simple, clear, concise message to share with all.

    July 21, 2016
    • Gil #

      “Be wary of nuance” is sometimes helpful advice. There are undoubtedly times where nuance is a crutch used by those unwilling to speak plainly.

      I would advise you to be wary of false oppositions. Like, for example the opposition of simplicity and nuance. Or equating nuance with “intellect holding authority over the simpler ethics of God.”

      Many inquisitive and faithful souls have been wrongly intimidated by logic like this. Many have concluded that a restless intellect is evidence of faithless disobedience. It’s one of the reasons that learned people struggle with faith.

      Be wary of adding to this burden.

      July 21, 2016
      • Paul Johnston #

        Good advice, Ryan. Even the better predisposition should be scrutinized. Pride and it’s sin locates everywhere ego attempts to lead the Spirit.

        Simplicity of faith, is verified when it’s proponents exibit humility, cheerfulness, a willingness to serve others and take no offense, condemn or curse those operating deceitfully.

        Deceiver are motivated by individual and group self interest always at the expense of others.They use their powers of reason(intellect consciously divorced from Spirit) to affirm injustice as justice. A just man never knowingly usurps the dignity of another; does conscious harm to another. His Spirit will not allow him.

        His intellect operating apart from the Spirit can give him a thousand reasons why such behavior is acceptable, perhaps even commendable.

        The application of human intellect apart from the Holy Spirit is foundational to the spread of evil.

        July 21, 2016
      • For the sake of clarity, the comments above that you’re responding to here are Gil’s, not mine (although I enthusiastically echo them).

        I agree—pride and sin abound. We must never be above self scrutiny.

        July 21, 2016
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Sorry, Gil and Ryan. I’ll pay closer attention. :)It occurs to me and I’m sure to you both 🙂 that my observations struggle with semantics. In of themselves reason and intellect are desirable qualities to be cultivated and affirmed yet I assert that apart from being spirit led they are dangerous and do great harm….technology in the hands of the wrong people so to speak….those who would beat plough shares into swords….worse still the modern crisis of faith that has deluded so many into thinking that their pursuit of self interest is real charity, that their proclamations of faith don’t need to be squared with secular culture and their violence and lust of thought will beget something other then violence and lust…

    Their is a pride of knowing that needs to be exorcised from the way we think. There is a grave misunderstanding that human reason can define and contain the indescribable infinity that is faith, love, God, creation and our part in it.

    I am approaching 60 and the best advice I think I can give myself…..the best advice I believe the Spirit to be giving me, is to just believe.

    Believe and be a good boy. LOL

    July 22, 2016
  7. Howard wideman #

    Regarding Ryan head ball injury read trail runner sept 2016 issue 114 pg. 86 after a run horrible pain in my back

    August 9, 2016

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