Why do you call me good? - Mark 10:17-31
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I am sure you will have come across this question which appears in some department stores, especially around Christmas time: ‘What do you give the man who has everything?’ The best answer I have seen is this:
Q. What do you give a man who has everything?
A. A woman to show him how everything works.
Well, the episode in the life of Jesus we are looking at this morning is about a man who appears to have everything. He has the ‘Three R’s’ in abundance. He is rich- v22, having great wealth. He is religious v17; concerned with ‘eternal life’; and he is righteous, v20, whichever commandment you care to name, he has kept it and so can feel pleased with himself. However, for all that he had there was one question burning in his heart for which he wanted an answer, it was the question about obtaining ‘eternal life’, which is equivalent to ‘the kingdom of God’ v23; and ‘salvation’ v26. But to any onlooker it was pretty obvious that if anyone was going to get eternal life it must be this man, after all he has so much going for him. So it would appear his question was a bit superfluous. But obviously it wasn’t to him; it was deeply significant hence him running up to Jesus, did you notice that, there is a sense of urgency, ensuring that he got to Jesus before he leaves town and then falling down on his knees before Jesus in the dirt, which was probably a first for him.
So you can imagine the shockwaves reverberating through the crowd when Jesus appears to set the bar of entry into the kingdom of God so high that the man simply walks away. The NIV translates his reaction in verse 20 as going away ‘sad’, which might elicit our sympathy. But the word is much stronger than that and is better rendered grieved (lupoumenos), which, as we shall see in a moment, is very significant as it exposes his fundamental problem which might also be your fundamental problem.
So what is going on? After all you might say, ‘But I thought Jesus accepted everybody unconditionally?’ It doesn’t look like that here with the condition Jesus lays down to sell everything.’ Does Jesus accept us ‘unconditionally’ as is so often asserted today? Well, ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Yes, in that Jesus does accept us unconditionally in that we don’t have to be a certain type of person to come to him, you can be of any class, colour or creed, a ‘sinner or a saint’ if you like. God doesn’t lay down the kind of preconditions we might lay down before we accept them. But the answer is ‘no’ in that we can’t remain as we are as if there is no cost or change involved. It has been said that the entrance fee into the Christian faith is nothing, but the annual subscription fee is everything. That was a lesson this man and the disciples were about to learn
Now in order to help the young man see properly what the big issue really is, Jesus demolishes a basic assumption that many people have and many religions promote concerning how we are put right with God and enjoy the blessing of eternal life. The assumption appears right at the beginning in v 17, ‘Good teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
The problem with this outlook that there is something good we can do which somehow qualifies us for eternal life is that we have fairly ropey standards of what goodness is. When we say, or at least think, ‘I am good’, who are we comparing ourselves with? It will often be someone way ‘down there’ on the relative scale of goodness won’t it? ‘Compared to Adolf Hitler, I am a good person’. Well, anyone can do that. But is that the right standard? You have to ask: what is the universal standard of goodness against which we are all to be measured? Jesus tells us in v18, “Why do you call me good me Jesus answered, “No one is good except God alone.’ What is Jesus’ point? Well let me ask: Where does our sense of right and wrong come from so that we can actually say that torturing babies is not just distasteful but wrong? The answer is that it comes from a Being whose own character is pure goodness. So that which runs counter to that character is wrong and what is in line with that character is good.
But it may be that Jesus is actually alluding to his own divinity here; ‘Why do you call me good when only God is good.’ Jesus is not saying ‘Steady on old chap, you have me all wrong, I might be fairly decent but the epithet good is reserved for God alone, he is the measure of all goodness, look at what he says, not me.’ Rather it could be that he is implying something along these lines, ‘Yes, only God is good and you recognise in me that kind of goodness which is why you are asking me about it, so why not do some joined up thinking and draw the right conclusions- God is good, I am good- so I am….? ’. You have got it! And in a moment he is going to make such an outrageous demand which has all the hallmarks of a divine demand.
You see, it is no good us looking down for a standard by which to measure ourselves because all that happens is that we end up deluding ourselves into thinking that we are better than we actually are. No, you don’t look down, you look up. And when you do that, kneeling in the dirt with this man looking up at Jesus, then you see a standard which keeps you down on your knees. What was it that the Russian novelist, Dostoyevsky, said? ‘I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one.’ And Jesus was about to get the man not only to see this, but feel it.
And so in effect Jesus says to the man, ‘You know that God is the measure of all goodness and he has given some indications of what that goodness looks like in his commandments.’ And so Jesus appears to make it easy for him at first. He just names the second list of the Ten Commandments, ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother.’ And when the man says he has kept these from his youth, Jesus doesn’t cast doubt on his claim, he points out that there is still something missing and that is when Jesus delivers the knockout punch, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” -verse 21. That sounds pretty hard, crippling in fact. But please notice the manner in which Jesus delivered the challenge: ‘He looked at him and loved him.’ He really did love the fellow, he wasn’t going to grind his face into the dirt, raise the bar so it was going to become an impossibility and take some sort of glee in doing so, saying ‘I bet you didn’t see that one coming did you?’ No, he loved him and because he loved him wanted the best for him and so he laid out the stark truth.
So here’s the question: Why did Jesus say what he said? Nowhere else is in the Bible is this demand made of anyone else.
The fact that Jesus makes the demand at all tells us something very special about Jesus. One German scholar, a man called Martin Hengel, has surveyed how other rabbis at the time of Jesus called disciples after them and nowhere….nowhere… does he find anyone who does it like Jesus. In fact he points out that the way Jesus calls followers in the New Testament parallels the way God calls prophets in the Old Testament. There is something of the divine when it comes to Jesus calling. He acts as if he has every right to make this kind of demand and he expects it to be carried out without hesitation. God can do that you know!
You see, Jesus knew what the man’s problem was deep down. He may have appeared to love other people- he probably did give some of his wealth away to help the poor as any good Jew would. But Jesus saw that the first great commandment was not being carried out ‘loving God with everything’ because there was another ‘god’ in his life called ‘wealth’. Is eternal life the most important thing? If so then surely if the offer is being made so you can have it, it actually makes sense to give up everything for it. But not for this man, and not for many of our contemporaries. And the fact that Jesus had put his finger on a sore spot is indicated by the young man’s response, ‘At this his face fell (stygnazo)’ or as we would say ‘the bottom of his world fell out’; and ‘he went away grieved’. Why? ‘Because’ we are told, ‘he had great wealth.’ Now why is the man’s response so significant? This is the way Tim Keller describes what is going on in the man’s heart. ‘There’s a place where the same Greek word is applied to Jesus. Matthew records in his Gospel that in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus started to sweat blood as he grieved in deep distress [lupoumenos]. Why? He knew he was about to experience the ultimate dislocation, the ultimate disorientation. He was about to lose the joy of his life, the core of his identity. He was going to lose his Father. Jesus was going to lose his spiritual centre, his very self. When Jesus called this young man to give up his money, the man started to grieve, because his money was for him what the Father was for Jesus. It was the centre of his identity. To lose his money would have been to lose himself- to lose what little sense he had of having covered the stain.’  Do you see? In short, his problem, which in varying degrees is everyone’s problem, is idolatry.
In this man’s case the idol, the god substitute, is riches, but it could easily have been something else. It could have been pleasure, it could have been sex, it could have been a career- it could have been a thousand and one things which in themselves are good but which become bad when they do not occupy their rightful place in our lives but occupy God’s place. And the one true living God in Jesus says ‘No, that is not right. It is not good no matter what religious veneer you smear over your life. What is more, it is not good for you because while something else is your god, whatever else is your dream, whatever else gives you joy and power without God and excludes God, then you can never know the real God and so cannot be saved.’ But the idol of riches had such a grip on this man’s life that the thought of losing it all was too much and so he walked away from the only hope he had of receiving eternal life.
You know, there is such a thing as ‘cheap grace’. This was a term coined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was hung by the Nazis during the final days of World War 2. In his book ‘The Cost of Discipleship’, he makes the distinction between cheap grace and costly grace. Cheap grace offers forgiveness without repentance, grace without discipleship. So your sins can be forgiven without them having to be forsaken. This is the false unconditional love some people speak about- ‘Jesus accepts you as you are, and you know what? You can stay as you are.’ This is the stuff and nonsense being spoken of by those in the church who wish to condone homosexual behaviour. But it is cheap grace and so no grace at all.
True grace on the other hand is costly because it cost Jesus his life on the cross and it costs us our lives in day to day obedience. This is how Bonhoeffer describes it, ‘The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ…Those who try to use this grace as a dispensation from following Christ are simply deceiving themselves.’ Now the disciples recognised that, v 28, ‘Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
So let me ask: what kind of grace are you living by? Is it cheap grace? You want Jesus as Saviour but not as Ruler. If so you are deceiving yourself. And the test is this: are there things in your life that you will not let go of even though Jesus says you must or things you would not even contemplate letting go of even if Jesus said you should? Real grace is costly grace.
However, while what Jesus demands of us may seem great it is nothing compared to what he offers in return.
Sometimes Christianity is dismissed as ‘Pie in the sky when you die’. That is not what Jesus says, there are plenty of rewards in the here and now for those willing to follow him, ‘Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
If someone were to ask me: ‘What is one of the best things about being a Christian’ I would not hesitate to say, ‘fellowship with other Christians’. It never ceases to be a source of amazement and pleasure to go to any part of the world and have that special oneness with other believers. I now have Christian friends all over the globe. Some are like mothers to me whom I deeply love, other are like fathers whom I deeply respect; others are just terrific brothers and sisters. It is a family which crosses all borders, cultures, backgrounds and languages. It is a sheer delight and nothing else on earth can compare with it. And best of all is to belong to a fellowship like this and experience the very thing Jesus speaks about here week after week.
Did you notice that this is costly grace Jesus is referring to for there will be ‘persecutions’? But the best of it all is still future- ‘and in the age to come eternal life.’ And this is something we will enjoy together- hence all this family talk by Jesus about fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters. This is how the 18th century American theologian, Jonathan Edwards describes what it will be like in heaven, ‘The God, who dwells and gloriously manifests himself there, is infinitely lovely. There is to be seen a glorious heavenly father, a glorious Redeemer; there is to be felt and possessed a glorious Sanctifier. All persons who belong to that blessed society are lovely. The father of the family is so, and so are all his children.’
That is why it really isn’t a cost at all to give up everything for Christ because in him you gain everything.
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