Jesus says that no one is good except God alone. (Mark 10:18) Well that’s a relief. It’s a burden to think that the task of our lives is to be good. (Which is to say, not being bad.)
Jesus makes the above declaration about God in response to a question from a rich man. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus begins with the affirmation that God alone is good. “But anyway” says Jesus, “how you going with the commandments?” “Great” says the guy, “I seem to have them down pretty well.” This guy thinks he is good. And he thinks Jesus is good, and that Jesus thinks that Jesus is good. And so he tries to identify with Jesus, to build up a mutual back-slapping club with him for all those who are good.
No such luck for the guy. “Give up everything and follow me.” To give up his wealth would be to give up the evidence that he is good. (That is, God blesses the righteous, and the guy’s wealth is therefore evidence that he is righteous. We call this the prosperity gospel these days and it is alive and well not so much in the church but in society around us.) Jesus invites the guy to give up the burden of his (self-) righteousness and to follow him, Jesus. “No way fella”, he says, and off he goes grieving for (we are told) “he had many possessions”.
People can often feel guilty about their wealth when they hear this reading. And that would be to miss the point. Guilt about not being good? ("I feel guilty about my wealth", which is to in some way say that I am bad because of it.) Oh dear. But isn’t Jesus saying that God alone is good? Imagine if, having felt guilty about one’s wealth after reading this passage, one gave it all up. I suppose we could feel very good rather than guilty (bad). But would this be discipleship?
Only God is good.
The call to discipleship that Jesus makes to the man is not a better way to be good, that is, free from possessions. The passage is consistent: Jesus says it’s not about being good (God alone is good), the man says that he is good, Jesus calls him to give it all up and follow him, surely not just to be good, but to escape being good. Discipleship of Jesus is not about being good.
It’s a call away from being good.
Here’s another way of looking at it. If I said I was showing compassion to someone because I was good, or if showed compassion because I felt guilty, that wouldn’t be compassion. That would make my ‘compassion’ be about me, not the person I am being compassionate toward. Being good to please God is about us, not God. Jesus asks us to love not be good.