At the end of the movie Saving Private Ryan the now elderly Private Ryan visits the cemetery where those who died saving his life fifty years earlier are buried. He wonders if he lived a life worthy of the sacrifice they made for him. He turns to his wife and says, “Tell me I’m a good man.” Being a good man would provide some small measure of paying forward what was done for him. Goodness is something he, and we, work toward. Your teacher writes on the top of the exam: “good job.” Your mother says to you, “Be a good girl and take out the trash.” Pet people have been known to talk with their dog: “Who’s a good boy. There’s my good boy. You’re my good boy” – which is just a little creepy to those of us who aren’t dog people. Assigning goodness to actions we approve of raises the question: why would Jesus, of all people, object to being called good? Isn’t being good what we are striving for? “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good?” I call you good because you heal the sick, you care for the sinner, you love children, you welcome everyone. But Jesus says, “No one is good but God alone.” (As an aside, we’re not the first people to puzzle over what is going on in this scene. When St. Matthew reports it in his gospel he reconstructs it so that Jesus does not object to being called good.) To understand this passage as St. Mark tells it — the call of the rich, young man, the warning that Jesus gives about wealth — we need to understand what lies behind Jesus’ unwillingness to be called good.
Jesus warns us about thinking of goodness as something we acquire, like picking up some brats and buns at the grocery store. I didn’t kill anyone today. I get one bag of goodness. I did not steal, another bag. I honored my father and mother. Two bags. Say my prayers, go to church, help a little old lady cross the street – pretty soon I have a whole truckload of goodness. Then when I die I cash in all the goodness I’ve amassed like so many green stamps and get a swanky dwelling place in heaven. But as the rich, young man experienced that does not work. He had been doing his acquiring goodness thing and despite a full load still he felt unsatisfied, incomplete, unfulfilled. There must be something else I should be doing to acquire goodness, he was thinking. Maybe if I wore a hair shirt or gave up eating asparagus or knelt on some grits I’d get enough bags of goodness that I can parlay with St. Peter when the time comes. During this encounter, Jesus wants him to stop thinking about getting and start thinking about giving. Wealth is wealth. Spiritual wealth or material wealth are both commodities that we want to have in our bank account. Relying on them, as the rich young man found out, is a risky proposition. How hard it is, Jesus says, for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven. If we think we can earn our way into heaven, if we think we can acquire enough goodness that we merit going to heaven we are mistaken. The gates of heaven open up when we give away all of our attempts to make something of ourselves.
Jesus declared that God alone is good to let us know that it is all a gift. We enter the kingdom of heaven not because we have worked our fingers to the bone trying to be good. We enter the kingdom of God not because of our goodness but because the good God loves us and wants us to have life and have it to the full. By correcting mistaken notions of what constitutes goodness Jesus warns us not to get trapped into thinking in terms of different levels of discipleship as we often do. Basic level: there’s the ordinary schmucks who do pretty good at keeping the commandments. Let’s give them a hand: Good job, good job. Then, there is the advanced level: those who do better than good by giving to the poor and following Jesus. Stand up and take a bow. The problem: this mentality produces minimalist thinking. Minimalist thinking is how we approach the IRS. What is the least I need do to stay on the right side of the law? Jesus wants maximal thinking, what more can I do to bring God’s love into the world. Since goodness is not an achievement, something we acquire, but a gift, there can’t be a two-tiered spirituality. The challenge that Jesus extends to the rich, young man is not an invitation to some kind of elite society. It is the challenge that he extends to all those who seek to follow him – to you and to me. Give away what you are relying on and trust in God. Live a gospel life of generosity and forgiveness. Then you inherit eternal life.
As the story of the rich, young man demonstrates it is not easy. He went away sad because he missed the one thing that makes it possible to give it all away – love. St. Mark says that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” If he had received the love Jesus extended toward him he would have been able to give it all away. There is a song in the play, A Chorus Line, “What I did for love.” The singer is a dancer who reflects on the sacrifices she was willing to make because of her love of dance – the hours of practice, the injuries sustained, the relationships lost, the sleepless nights. It was all worth it because what she did was for love. That is the mentality Jesus expects of his followers. The reason we heed the call of Jesus is love. We give it all away because we know that love is enough and more than enough. As the song goes: Oh, how I love Jesus because he first loved me.