As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
Some graduate students in psychology came to my third grade class. Along with my classmates, one by one we were shepherded into a room where a grad student showed us some pictures. I remember one particular picture of an elderly couple seated on the front porch in the sun with rain falling down upon them. The student, dressed in a suit with a skinny tie, asked me, “What is wrong with this picture?” I looked, saw the sun, the rain, the elderly couple in their rocking chairs and said, “Nothing.” He asked me what I saw. I told him about the rain, the sun and the old folks in their rocking chair. Seeing nothing wrong in the picture meant I was doing it wrong. I never had a chance to read the study.
In the passage above, a young man approaches the teacher earnestly wanting to get it right. He has spent his life adhering to the moral laws of his people. For him right is right and wrong is wrong. People don’t sit on the front porch in the rain. It doesn’t rain on a sunny day. Despite his good behavior, always getting it right, this young man is unhappy and dissatisfied. He feels incomplete, as if he is missing it, something “out there” that could meet all his needs. This is why he seeks out the teacher, Jesus. “Good teacher,” he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is the big question, like Emperor Wu’s big question of Bodhidharma, “what is the first principle of buddhism?” or Zhaozhou’s student asking, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?” Or you, the question that first brought you to this practice, perhaps, “how can I be happy?” or, maybe, “who am I?” You know your question. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Like a Thief…
Immediately, Jesus, like a thief, takes everything away, all expectations that the young man might have, “Why do you call me good?” says Jesus, “No one is good but God alone.” For the first time in his life this young man is wrong. Being wrong is a good place to start when it comes to being alive. Knowing and certainty crumble -- gates open, the world rises to not-knowing and leaves us here, sitting “in the dark.” Jesus takes away all the answers “out there,” all the promises, all the hopes to be fulfilled by something apart from his rich young friend. Jesus cannot give him meaning, something to believe in. Rather, he takes away. Jesus has no-thing to give this rich man. Jesus will have none of it, “Why do you call me good?” “No one is good but God alone.”
Jesus ascribes goodness to God. This might be difficult if it weren’t for the fact that God is every bit as slippery as Jesus. We might think, ah, finally somewhere to locate goodness. However, God is not something to externalize through belief, a presence that imparts, blesses and gives meaning. Any affirmation of God falls apart, is too small, and is, in fact, a denial of God, of life’s mystery. The words and images we use to speak of the divine come up to a blank wall of unknowing. Say something about God and you would be wrong. Again, a very good place to start. Then goodness? I don’t know. Again, sort of like Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu, “Who is standing in front of me? I don’t know.”
I like this from the latest grunge
sensation, Courtney Barnett, in her song, Pedestrial At Best.
put me on a pedestal and I'll only disappoint you tell me I'm exceptional and I promise to exploit you