And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? [there is] none good but one, [that is], God.
(Mark 10:17-18 KJV)
I was once sharing the gospel with someone who was quite adamant to reject it. Unfortunately for this fellow, he had some knowledge of the Scriptures. Though even the littlest knowledge of the Word of God is profitable and highly recommended, I deliberately use the term ‘unfortunate’ here because it was one of those cases where religion so blinds a person that the very holy and true words meant for their deliverance are the very ones wrested to become their chains. Twisted meanings no where applicable are forced unto God’s Words, and the worse blindness possible ensues – that caused by religious doctrine. Even Jesus Himself lamented on the religious leaders of His day, “[You make] the Word of God of none effect through your tradition.” (Mark 7:13 KJV). It is a terrible tragedy to be blind; it is even more terrible to believe God commanded your blindness.
Anyway, in the sequence of our discourse, having all the while raised other passages in his argument, he brought up this particular one as proof that even Jesus was not all good all the time, let alone the perfect righteousness He so appropriately claimed to be. “After all,” he reasoned (I paraphrase), “even Jesus Himself said ‘No one but God is good.’”
I have taken it upon myself, having been enlightened, to in turn explain this passage’s true meaning and hopefully demolish such an absurd conclusion.
To do this, I must first point out the very obvious but seldom recognised fact that Jesus had a ‘funny’ way of speaking. One writer I respect described His speech as ‘parabolic’ i.e. like a parable, figurative. Basically, this means His words usually weren’t to be interpreted (quite) literally; they would usually require some thought on the listener’s part to get what He really meant. A good example of this was when He told His disciples to “beware the leaven of the Pharisees”1, and they made the mistake of interpreting literally that he meant actual bread! Sadly, their mistake of literally interpreting what was in truth required for some thought is still the same mistake some make today.
Having identified this pothole, I’ll believe we can safely avoid it as I proceed to explain the case in this verse by splitting it into two parts:
“Why callest thou me good?”
Now, my name is Deolu. However, my ‘full’ name is Adeoluwa. No one calls me this, not even my mother who gave me the name. On the very rare occasion that she does, I’ll instinctively ask, “What’s up?” as in, why did you call me that? Does my asking mean I am saying that is not my name? Of course not. I am simply recognising that someone has chosen to engage me in a special or uncommon way, and I want to know why!
It’s the same here. Jesus simply wanted to know why this particular man was referring to Him as ‘good’. Not that He was not good, but why was he saying so? It’s even right there in the sentence: “Why do you call me good?”!
This part seems easy enough. Perhaps it was the next statement Jesus uttered that made things a bit more difficult…at first glance.
“…[there is] none good but one, [that is], God.”
We’ve already established Jesus had a ‘funny’ way of speaking. Returning to that, if we were to make the mistake of literal interpretation, then what Jesus was saying here was exactly what is written: only God is good, and no one else, not even He speaking, is.
But if we recall the point on Jesus’ speech pattern, might a deeper truth lay here?
First of all, we must remember that Jesus Himself is God. So in effect, Jesus was saying, “No one is good…except God…that is, ME…”
Secondly, we must also remember that Jesus had taken the pain to inquire as to why this young man was calling Him ‘good’. In His usual way, Jesus saw into his heart, and got His answer before the man said a word. Even we too can do so, when we read the preceding and following verses and see that the man was someone whose definition of good was based on acts. Throughout this story, he kept emphasizing ‘do’.
“What [good thing] must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“All these things have I done…”
So this young man knew that despite all his doing, he lacked something still – something he recognised in Jesus. He caught a glimpse of that eternal life, and thought Jesus got there by doing something. This was why he called Jesus ‘Good Master’ – some say it was actually flattery; regardless, it was like saying He was a guru of all things ‘good’ that had reached enlightenment and had the secrets of life, which he now wanted. Additionally, his definition and use of ‘good’, though better than his peers, was still very hollow compared to God’s awesome majesty.
And it was these grave errors in judgment Jesus was trying to dispel. (It is one you, dear reader, would be wise to identify and correct in your life as well, as some doctrines of Christianity today preach and enforce these same mistakes)
When Jesus saw these errors, without waiting for an answer, He immediately slotted in, “No one is good, except God.” It was this immediate response to His Own question that made Jesus seem to contradict Himself. But He was in effect saying, “You call Me good because you see good acts. Man, doing good acts does not make you good. It does not mean you are good to begin with; it doesn’t even mean you will become good. NO ONE, despite their good acts, is intrinsically good, nor can they become so by their good acts. ONLY GOD is good as a nature. ONLY GOD (and anyone born of Him) is intrinsically good.
Man, I am not good because I do good acts; I do good acts because I am good. It is a result, not a cause; fruits of a perfect nature, an eternal life-force!”2
It is obvious that the ruler did not grab Jesus’ profound Truth here – if he had, the story would’ve ended at this verse. (Hope you did? If not, do go over it again.) When the man still insisted on going through the path of doings rather being, Jesus eventually showed him that this path would always be filled with “One thing you lack…” Because that’s what happens when a cat tries to become a bird by doing bird things rather than simply being born as one – it will always lack one thing that will eventually pull it back down to its cat life.
1 – Matthew 16:5-12
2 – Psalms 119:68