“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone?” Why does Jesus do this? Seriously. What a snarky response, and, furthermore, a confusing one. Is Jesus denying his divinity here? What is he doing? Well, if he’s denying his divinity, then we’ve got a problem with other texts and, well, quite honestly, a key point in orthodox theology. That alone is reason to question what he’s doing here, but there’s more, which I think is more compelling. That is that if you look at Luke’s Jesus (which is what we’ve been doing for over two months now, it’s a snarky Jesus. And in his snakiness, he is often getting us to examine ourselves. It’s quite possible that what Jesus is doing here is getting this man to really think about what he’s saying when he addresses him as, “good teacher”? It’s as though Jesus is saying, “do you really think that’s what I am? Because the implications of that are pretty big. So, if you do, fasten your seatbelt as I answer your question.”
And then Jesus launches into it: He cites the commandments in answer to the man’s question about inheriting eternal life. And the man says, “Got it. Been there done that.” But then Jesus says there is one thing lacking, which he follows with telling him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. Ruh-roh.
Two things about this:
First, remember that Luke’s Jesus is very concerned about the poor and, in that, also bringing down the rich. He just is. That might make many of us in affluent America uncomfortable, but it is what it is. We should let it make it us uncomfortable. It doesn’t disqualify anyone from God’s grace, so don’t worry about that. Just let it make us uncomfortable.
Second: I’m not trying to find a loop hole here, but I also think we are not to take this as a universal command for all people at all time. This is not a religious leader asking about universal truths and theology; this is a rich, unnamed ruler asking Jesus what must I do to inherit eternal life. Part of the problem is that he’s asking what I have to do. As indicated by what Jesus says toward the end of this story (verse 27), there isn’t anything anybody can do. It’s impossible to get yourself eternal life. Only God can do that.
But further more, this man is asking what I must do- not what all people must do; not what one must do, but what I must do. And the NRSV doesn’t help us here because in it Jesus’ response is “there is still one thing lacking”. This is in the passive voice, as though there is this mysterious thing out there that’s lacking or could be lacking in anyone. The Greek, however, reads, “still, one thing you are lacking.” It’s in the 2nd person, singular, present, active; that means it is this man, right here, right now that is currently lacking something. And what he is lacking is the giving of his whole heart, mind, soul, and strength to the love and mission of God.
The bottom line, and what I think is the core of this story’s point, is that each one of us is lacking something. And whatever that is (and no one can really name that except for you and the Spirit of of God working you) is what God asks us to let go of. The question is not, “do I need to sell everything I have and give it to the poor?” The question is, “what are you holding on to? What are you holding on to with a tight grip that though you think it’s giving you a sense of peace and security, it’s actually a source of tension and restriction?” What do you, and what do I, need to release?