In last week’s blog we discussed Jesus’ surprising response to a rich young ruler who addressed him as Good Teacher: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). We listed four possible explanations of what Jesus was getting at with this rejoinder. So what is the correct explanation?
Some key points we can identify from this exchange are as follows:
1) There is an absolute distinction drawn between God, who is good, and human beings, who are not good.
2) Jesus is probably drawing on Psalm 14:2-3, where the reason why human beings are not good is their sinful deeds (the same passage is cited by Paul in Romans 3 as evidence that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’).
3) With this distinction in mind, Jesus questions why the ruler has chosen to address him as Good (however, he does not indicate that the ruler was wrong to do so).
The Gospel writers were little concerned with recording pithy philosophical discussions. They chose to include events and dialogues which best served their underlying purpose – namely, to show that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Given that Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this incident, we may reasonably conclude that it makes an important contribution to understanding the identity of Jesus.
The thrust of this exchange, therefore, comes down to what it teaches us about Jesus. The fundamental question that must be answered is, was the ruler correct to address Jesus as good? In other words, to which side of the ‘absolute distinction’ between divine goodness and human sin did Jesus belong?
The testimony of the rest of Scripture provides us with a clear answer. Jesus self-identified as “The Good Shepherd” (John 10:11) which is little different from “Good Teacher.” He was described by his followers as “The Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14), likely with allusion to OT prophecies like Psalm 16:10, Isaiah53:11 and Zechariah 9:9. He was not merely identified as “a good and righteous man” in a relative sense (cp. Luke 23:50); these passages contain the definite article demonstrating a unique and absolute kind of goodness – the Righteous One. In John 8:46 he challenged his opponents to prove that he was guilty of sin, and in John 10:32 he implored, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?”
Thus, neither in Jesus’ own self-consciousness, nor in the esteem of his earliest followers, was there anything separating him from the goodness of God. And the accolades only grow in the later books of the New Testament (see, for instance, 2 Corinthians5:21, Hebrews 7:26 and 1 Peter 2:22).
At the same time, as Robert H. Stein notes, like any human being Jesus’ goodness was subject to growth. He increased in wisdom and in favour with God (Luke 2:52). So there is a sense in which, by being human, Christ’s divine goodness was veiled for a time. However, I do not think this is the point Jesus is making here. Rather, he used this leading question to point to the great paradox that in him, the fullness of God’s goodness was present in human form. The young ruler’s form of address, ‘Good Teacher,’ was inadequate not because Jesus was less than a good teacher, but because Jesus was more than a good teacher in the careless, ordinary way the ruler likely used the word ‘good.’ This brings to mind C.S. Lewis’ famous ‘Lord, liar or lunatic’ trilemma from his book Mere Christianity, as it seems to highlight precisely the mistake that the ruler was making:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
It also brings to mind Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees in Matthew 22:42-45 about whose son Christ was. The Pharisees were not wrong to answer “The son of David” – indeed this point is affirmed in the first sentence of Matthew’s Gospel. However, their answer was less than the whole truth, because it acknowledged only his humanity and not his divinity (see also Romans 1:3-4).