Lenten Question 1: “Why do you call me good?”

Jesus asks an interesting question in Mark chapter ten, which I have never fully considered: “Why do you call me good?”

He’s getting ready to go on a trip, and this rich man runs to him and kneels down, desperately wanting the Good Teacher to tell him how he can get eternal life. Jesus asks him, “Why do you call me good?” but then doesn’t wait for a response. He kind of blows him off, and I can’t really blame him. I mean, here he is, packing up the station wagon, making sure the disciples have fed the dogs, gone to the bathroom one last time, and all that. This guy runs up and asks a question for which he probably should have called the secretary to schedule an appointment.

So Jesus runs through the list–the list of Good Things to do and be. Done and done! Or so says the rich guy. Jesus pauses. He looks at the man, and deep love and affection begin to well up inside of him.

“You really want to know? Hop in! We’ll take your house keys down to Goodwill and tell them they can have it all. We’re headed to Jerusalem, and I have this feeling that we’re not all going to make it back.”

Let’s be honest: None of us really wants that.

It was Jesus’ great compassion for the man that made him ask for everything–not specifically concern for his kingdom or glory, not a new commandment to add to the man’s already impressive list of moral accomplishments, but a deep sense of concern for the wellbeing of the man himself. Well, if Jesus is so good, and if this request was for the man’s own good, then why the sorrow?

Maybe I don’t fully believe that Jesus is a Good Teacher. Or if he is the Good Teacher–if not only his teachings are good, but he himself is good–maybe I’m not sure that’s enough. Maybe his teachings need to be balanced with a good dose of common sense. Surely none of us actually obeys his command, “Do not resist an evil person.” Or, if we do obey it, it’s a luxury of living in a society where armed agents of the state will resist evil on our behalf. The unsavory activities are handled by others so we can keep our hands clean. But then am I just Pontius Pilate? I don’t have an answer to that one.

“Peter, why do you call me good?” Jesus asks me. Why indeed? Is it only a little flattery on the way to a self-indulgent spirituality? Or is it a true confession, an almost involuntary response to contact with Jesus himself?

Luke juxtaposes this rich young man with Zacchaeus the tax collector. And in case anyone was thinking of missing the point, he prefaces both stories with the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector praying in the temple. One goes right up, justifies himself before God, lists his accomplishments. It is his moment of triumph. The tax collector stays away, can’t even lift his eyes to heaven, begs for mercy. He is undone in the presence of God. “Woe is me!” is his prayer, and it has a long history. That was Isaiah’s response when he met God in the temple, too. The prayer is as insuppressible as laughing at a good joke, though the tone is fearful and ominous.

So Zacchaeus, unable to lift his eyes to Jesus, climbs a tree and is addressed: “Zacchaeus, I will go to your house.” Woe is me! Woe indeed! No suggestion is needed–half his wealth gone, biblical restitution (four times whatever he stole!) will be made from the other half. A fraction of his wealth left. And Jesus tells everyone this is what salvation looks like.

Meanwhile the rich young man quotes Fiddler on the Roof: “If money is a curse, may the Lord smite me with it! And may I never recover!”

The rich man took the right posture and said the right words, but had no eyes to see the one he was speaking to. Zacchaeus somehow knew he was undone even before Jesus crossed the threshold.

I need that “Woe is me!” moment, and not the melodramatic whining that I am so used to giving God. I mean the naked-before-your-creator, unable-to-hide-yourself experience that forces a gasp of awestruck dread. That authoritative moment when you find out if you’ll receive grace or be destroyed. For as long as I put off being undone by his holiness–even his goodness–I hide myself from his mercy. How often my prayers and my theology are attempts to hide myself from him, and him from me! But the God who cannot be hidden in abstractions and constructions speaks to me, “Why do you call me good?”