A Question of Semantics

It seems that I am not the only one who is fascinated with words.

Something that has puzzled me for a long time is this passage from Mark, chapter 10:

As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good.”

Say what?

Jesus himself is part of God. My daughter has a book that tries to explain the mystery of the “3-in-one” Father-Son-Holy Spirit concept that compares the three to the apple. An apple has three parts — the skin, the flesh, and the core….but it is still one apple. Similarly, God has three persons. Or, at least, that is what I have been taught ever since I could say the Lord’s Prayer.

Yet Jesus reprimands the rich young man for calling him good. Surely there was no one else whose sandals struck the ground on earth who possessed even a tenth of the goodness that radiated out of Jesus like sunshine out of a prism. So, why did Jesus deny his own goodness?

As I write this, I am not sure. It could be that Jesus was subtly letting it be known that he IS God…because as soon as he said that only God is good, he went on to answer the man’s question about how to inherit eternal life.

But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.’

“Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”

Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

The KJV is translated slightly different. Jesus tells the man to “Go sell whatsoever thou hast…” The Greek verb for “thou hast” is echo. It does mean material things such as furniture and houses and other possessions. But it also is used to refer to a person who is clinging to a thing. We might say that Frodo Baggins “echoed” the Ring of Power. I think this is the meaning Jesus was alluding to when he told the man to go sell his possessions. He essentially told him to get rid of his attachment to his things so that he could then become attached to Christ. Jesus looked at him and loved him and knew that this man’s clinging was interfering with his ability to follow God. I am even more convinced of this interpretation when I look at the Greek word lypeo, which is what is translated above as “sad.” Lypeo also means to be made to feel uneasy, or to suddenly develop scruples. The rich young man who followed all the commandments walked away from Jesus full of uneasiness because he just couldn’t bear to part with his stuff.

All this still doesn’t answer my question about why Jesus objected to the rich young man calling him “good.” Perhaps the answer lies in what happened next in the story. To paraphrase, Jesus uses this episode as a teachable moment and tells his disciples that it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples are dismayed and wonder who on earth can be saved? Jesus says this:

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God…and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.”

So, a person who has given up their lives for Christ will have eternal life. And many of those who are “great” in this world — like the rich young man — will be the least important.

I’m being extremely honest here with an apparent contradiction…John 3:16 and in several other places we learn that eternal life is granted to those who BELIEVE in Jesus. Nothing is said about giving up possessions.

For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but shall have eternal life.

In order for both verses to be true, and I am operating from the certainty that they are, this must mean that the rich young man must not have believed in the Son. He called him “Good Teacher.” Perhaps this was merely flattery? Here’s a man gathering huge crowds, and a rich man who had everything wanted a piece of the action. If he approached Jesus seeking a pat on the head for good behavior and adherence to the commandments, he had another think coming. Notice that the young man wanted to know how to inherit eternal life. He didn’t ask how to earn it, or how to receive it. He wanted to inherit it, as a son inherits possessions. Perhaps his use of that word is a clue to his mind-set about eternal life: it was just another possession to fall into his lap. Jesus set him straight, didn’t he?

Jesus knows what’s in our hearts at all times. He knows it when we are saying one thing and thinking another or when we’re totally off the tracks. It’s…freeing…to know that I don’t have to hide my words from him.

Teach me, Lord. Show me through your words what it is you have for me today.  I started out trying to figure out why  you asked the man why he called you “good.”  I think, after all this rambling and thought, that you were telling him in a roundabout way that you ARE God.  But I’m not sure.  And that’s okay.  My little brain isn’t capable of keeping pace with you!

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