As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.”‘ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Jesus said: Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
Users of the English language have terrible problems with the word ‘good’. As an adjective, the dictionary provides us with over thirty meanings to this simple word that we are sure we understand so well. As a noun, we are still expected to be able to navigate our way around at least a dozen meanings. Each of these many meanings carries its own subtle nuance depending upon the context in which it is used, but each can probably be reduced to an assessment of either quality or quantity, or both.
We speak of things being ‘good’ when we are referring to behaviour, competence or ethical probity, just as we use the same word to speak of quantity and there being a ‘good deal of something or the other’. We also turn the word into a plural and use it to describe the things we amass around ourselves, and that very often distance us from the God who Jesus describes as ‘good’ in today’s reading.
Native English speakers seem to have an inbuilt awareness of the many and varied ways in which the word ‘good’ can be used. We do not seem to struggle with its manipulation and implementation. When that word, ‘good’, crops up in conversation we generally understand exactly how it is being used, just as we expect others to understand what we mean by it when we pepper our daily language with the same word.
Of course, the flexibility we apply to our use of the word ‘good’ devalues it. We should not be surprised to find that that is not the way Jesus uses the word in Mark’s gospel. The Greek word is agathos, which does not allow such a conveniently mobile interpretation. Agathos is far more specific in its meaning: ‘intrinsically good in nature’, or ‘good whether it can be seen to be so or not’. The word Jesus uses, and which we translate as ‘good’, is about a purity of nature which can only ever be seen as belonging to God, no matter how hard we try to apply it to others, or even to ourselves.
The big question we need to ask ourselves today is how we can aspire to achieve the ‘goodness’ spoken of by the man who ran up and knelt before Jesus? We all wish to be seen as being ‘good’ people. To achieve this aim, however, we all need to examine how we live out our earthly lives. Jesus says: how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. This unequivocal teaching is very hard for us to assimilate into our daily lives, but these difficult words of scripture will not go away because we find them challenging, they stand at the heart of Christ’s call to love and serve.
I do not believe that Jesus is calling us to live a life of poverty, but he is calling us all to prioritise how we view the ‘wealth’ we gather around ourselves. Every single thing we either possess or desire to possess, whether physical or emotional, is a gift from God. We should never lose sight of that fact, just as we should never lose sight of the call to put God before anything and everything else to which we might attach value.
God calls us to serve him in this world of sin and greed. Let us pray for the strength to keep him as our final goal, and not the acquisition of worldly wealth. Let us pray that we might not join the man who ran up and knelt before Jesus, in turning away from the true path because the pull of our worldly priorities overwhelms our call to follow God.