HOW MUCH DO YOU WANT GOODNESS?
As Jesus was going along the road, a man came running to him and threw himself at his feet and asked him, “Good teacher, what am I to do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? There is no one who is good, except one–God. You know the commandments. You must not kin, you must not commit adultery, you must not steal, you must not bear false witness, you must not defraud anyone, you must honour your father and mother.” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these from my youth.” When Jesus looked at him he loved him, and he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Go, sell all that you have, and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. And come! Follow me!” But he was grieved at this saying, and he went away in sadness, for he had many possessions.
Here is one of the most vivid stories in the gospels.
(i) We must note how the man came and how Jesus met him. He came running. He flung himself at Jesus’ feet. There is something amazing in the sight of this rich, young aristocrat falling at the feet of the penniless prophet from Nazareth, who was on the way to being an outlaw. “Good teacher!” he began. And straight away Jesus answered back, “No flattery! Don’t call me good! Keep that word for God!” It looks almost as if Jesus was trying to freeze him and to pour cold water on that young enthusiasm.
There is a lesson here. It is clear that this man came to Jesus in a moment of overflowing emotion. It is also clear that Jesus exercised a personal fascination over him. Jesus did two things that every evangelist and every preacher and every teacher ought to remember and to copy.
First, he said in effect, “Stop and think! You are all wrought up and palpitating with emotion! I don’t want you swept to me by a moment of emotion. Think calmly what you are doing.” Jesus was not freezing the man. He was telling him even at the very outset to count the cost.
Second, he said in effect, “You cannot become a Christian by a sentimental passion for me. you must look at God.” Preaching and teaching always mean the conveying of truth through personality, and thereby lies the greatest danger of the greatest teachers. The danger is that the pupil, the scholar, the young person may form a personal attachment to the teacher or the preacher and think that it is an attachment to God. The teacher and preacher must never point to himself. He must always point to God. There is in all true teaching a certain self-obliteration. True, we cannot keep personality and warm personal loyalty out of it altogether, and we would not if we could. But the matter must not stop there. The teacher and the preacher are in the last analysis only finger-posts to God.
(ii) Never did any story so lay down the essential Christian truth that respectability is not enough. Jesus quoted the commandments which were the basis of the decent life. Without hesitation the man said he had kept them all. Note one thing–with one exception they were all negative commandments, and that one exception operated only in the family circle. In effect the man was saying, “I never in my life did anyone any harm.” That was perfectly true. But the real question is, “What good have you done?” And the question to this man was even more pointed, “With all your possessions, with your wealth, with all that you could give away, what positive good have you done to others? How much have you gone out of your way to help and comfort and strengthen others as you might have done?” Respectability, on the whole, consists in not doing things; Christianity consists in doing things. That was precisely where this man–like so many of us–fell down.
(iii) So Jesus confronted him with a challenge. In effect he said, “Get out of this moral respectability. Stop looking at goodness as consisting in not doing things. Take yourself and all that you have, and spend everything on others. Then you will find true happiness in time and in eternity.” The man could not do it. He had great possessions, which it had never entered his head to give away and when it was suggested to him he could not. True, he had never stolen, and he had never defrauded anyone–but neither had he ever been, nor could he compel himself to be, positively and sacrificially generous.
It may be respectable never to take away from anyone. It is Christian to give to someone. In reality Jesus was confronting this man with a basic and essential question–“How much do you want real Christianity? Do you want it enough to give your possessions away?” And the man had to answer in effect, “I want it–but I don’t want it as much as all that.”
Robert Louis Stevenson in The Master of Ballantrae draws a picture of the master leaving the ancestral home of Durrisdeer for the last time. Even he is sad. He is talking to the faithful family steward. “Ah! M’Kellar,” he said, “Do you think I have never a regret.” “I do not think,” said M’Kellar, “that you could be so bad a man unless you had all the machinery for being a good one.” “Not all,” said the master, “not all. It is there you are in error. The malady of not wanting.”
It was the malady of not wanting enough which meant tragedy for the man who came running to Jesus. It is the malady from which most of us suffer. We all want goodness, but so few of us want it enough to pay the price.
Jesus, looking at him, loved him. There were many things in that look of Jesus.
(a) There was the appeal of love. Jesus was not angry with him. He loved him too much for that. It was not the look of anger but the appeal of love.
(b) There was the challenge to chivalry. It was a look which sought to pull the man out of his comfortable, respectable, settled life into the adventure of being a real Christian.
(c) It was the look of grief. And that grief was the sorest grief of all–the grief of seeing a man deliberately choose not to be what he might have been and had it in him to be.
Jesus looks at us with the appeal of love and with the challenge to the knightliness of the Christian way. God grant that he may never have to look at us with sorrow for a loved one who refuser to be what he might have been and could have been.
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