Sometimes it is very important to know WHICH WORD to stress in a sentence. A fantastic example of a sentence which has seven very different "plain meanings" depending on which word you stress in it, is:
"I never said she stole my wallet"
What is the meaning of this sentence? Did you think
"I NEVER said she stole my wallet" or
"I never said SHE stole my wallet" or
"I never said she stole my WALLET" ...
all of which mean totally different things.
The problem is that in a written document we don't have the intonation anymore but then, we usually don't have "just one sentence" either and the context will make clear what is the right intonation (and meaning) of a phrase even if there are several possible meanings when taken isolated.
So after this introduction for the proper "setting of the stage", let me proceed to the contentious text itself.
The following argument has been brought up ever so often by several Muslims so that I think an explanation of this specific misunderstanding is in order.
Let me quote a few recent examples:
In article <email@example.com>, firstname.lastname@example.org (Dien Alfred Rice) writes (April 13th):
I would like to invite those good Christians who read soc.religion.islam to accept Jesus, peace be with him, as the Prophet of God, but _not_ as God himself. Jesus himself denied being good, because only God is good - so Jesus himself denied to be God.
and in an earlier post:
As others have often repeated here, Jesus (a.s.) denied being "good," but only God is good. Is being not-good an ascription appropriate to God?
In article <email@example.com>, hareb@spot.Colorado.EDU (Mehdi) writes:
You know that no one is holy but God. (Even Jesus said: why do you call me ....) you know the rest. All are short of the grace of God. All - period.
[Would Muslims hesitate to call Muhammad good? Good man, good teacher, good prophet, good husband? If so, why would they take Jesus' statement to deny goodness to him? Or if you want to take it in this "specific meaning" that goodness implies divinity, how can you dare use the word "good" for Muhammad?]
I have the impression, when Muslims read this statement by Jesus they stress it [in disregard of context] as: "Why do you call ME good?" as if Jesus is shocked and emphatically denies his goodness and is utterly opposed to such a statement. I want to show in the following that Jesus is not denying his goodness, but questioning this man's motives by asking him "*WHY* do you call me good?" because this man is "altogether too obsequious and effusive in his approach" [as one commentator says]. And "before you address me with such a title, you had better think soberly about what the implications are, and especially what they are for you."
Let us look what the Bible really says before we jump to conclusions too quickly. This event you are refering to is written in the Gospel as recorded by Mark, chapter 10:
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." 16 And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. 17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
18 "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered.
"No one is good -- except God alone.
19 You know the commandments: `Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'" 20 "Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy." 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." 22 At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
First we have to observe that this man is "praising Jesus highly" but then goes on to NOT obey what Jesus tells him he should do to inherit the eternal life that he desires.
Some quick remarks about the context. Jesus has just taught the people that to enter the kingdom of God (= get eternal life) we need to accept it as a gift, just like the children who have no inhibitions to accept gifts. Jesus tells us that we have to "unlearn" our adult behavior of "having to earn everything" because we cannot earn God's favor and grace, but have to accept it as a free gift of love. And the next we read is that this man comes up and asks "what MUST I DO to inherit eternal life". This shows how much this is entrenched in our nature and how hard it is to accept the pure grace of God. God's grace is without pre-conditions but not without consequences. Whoever has tasted of God's grace will strive to live a life which is pleasing to God.
We can only guess why exactly this man is praising Jesus so highly when he approaches him. Maybe he thought if he praises Jesus first, he might get a more favorable answer from him? One that is "easier to fulfill"? Isn't that a common approach of many people towards those who are (perceived to be) in authority on a certain issue? But Jesus looks through these smoke screens and goes right to the core problem. Jesus isn't swayed by this man's attempt to win his favor the wrong way. This doesn't mean that this man was a total hypocrite - just trying to manipulate a bit in his own favor. Jesus won't let him do so.
I think there are several indications that this man was very serious with his quest. He was a very religious man and had diligently observed the commandments of God. When Jesus gives him a short list of them, he responds that he has obeyed all these from his childhood on to this day. He was indeed a devout and committed believer. One should also observe that Jesus basically lists the second tablet of the Ten Commandments which deal with the relationship of us with our fellow men -- the examination into the relationship of this inquirer with the first tablet (about our relationship with God) will come later.
But in all his diligent observance of God's law, there still was a insecurity if that was "enough" to get eternal life. This didn't let him rest in peace. He wanted to make sure that God would in the end accept him in the last judgment and grant him eternal life. This man had his priorities right at least on this part. He was concerned with this most important question of what do I have to do in this life to be in the right place after it is over and I have to face the judgment of God.
And Jesus acknowledges the right and good desire of this man, we read that he looked at him and "he loved him". He sees that this man wants more and is serious about it, he knows this "religious observance of commandments" isn't "it" yet ` [otherwise he wouldn't have asked in this 'self humiliating way' of falling down before Jesus in front of a whole crowd]. Jesus sees the true desire of this man and because of his love to him he tells him [after reviewing some basics = some of the Ten Commandments] what he needs for eternal life.
Jesus says: Give away what you have to the poor. Then you will have a treasure in heaven. And then FOLLOW ME.
This answer of Jesus cuts right through to the core of his problem. He was rich and his wealth and the security that comes with wealth was too important for him to give up. He wanted eternal life, and he would have made great efforts to do many good deeds with his wealth and his abilities, no question about that. But giving it up completely? Trusting ONLY God and having his security in God only? This was too much for him. He did get the answer that he needed. But it was also the answer that exposed his true heart. His wealth and position was more important than God. And he went away sad. At another time Jesus said: You cannot serve two masters. Either God or money. And Jesus' command revealed that though this man had kept all the "outward commandments of behavior", he was guilty of breaking the first commandment "I am the Lord your God, you shall have NO other gods before me". Nothing is allowed to take priority over God. For him it was money, security, position, ...
Yes, God is the source of all goodness and truth. [But God in the creation account pronounces his creation to be "very good" - a goodness derived from the one who made it. And there are many people called "good" in the Bible. Jesus has no problem with that at all. But Jesus points to the source of all goodness - and he doesn't say that he has nothing to do with this source.]
Jesus peels away the man's attempt to 'manipulate' in his favor. And he says to him, "don't use divine attributes for me IF you are not willing to follow what I am going to tell you". Jesus does then make this clear by showing him WHO [what] really is his 'god'. Jesus with this question "WHY do you call me good -- only God is good" and his exposure of the man's true heart makes clear that this statement has to be read as "Only call me "good" [meaning: (from) God], if you are prepared to fully submit to what I will tell you".
And though this does explain the statement, to fully understand the dynamic of this incident we have to look even more carefully. There is much more. No prophet has ever talked in this "presumptious" way.
"How can I get eternal life?" is the question. "Follow ME!" is the answer that Jesus gives.
Do you see what he is claiming? He does NOT say, these are the teachings that God has given me. Follow these rules and you will get to heaven. Neither did he just say, "follow God, submit to God", but he said "Follow ME!".
Jesus talks to this man as if it is in his hand to give eternal life. Follow Jesus and you have eternal life. And that by the way a constant topic in the teaching of Jesus. And it is completely against the tradition of Jewish teachers, which are approached and chosen by their students. But none of the disciples chose Jesus. It is always Jesus who comes up to them and "claims them" and commands them to follow him.
Do I read into the text that Jesus connects "obtaining eternal life" with "following him"? I don't think so. This is a constant theme of Jesus' teaching:
I AM the resurrection and the life, who believes in ME will live (eternally), even though he dies (physically); and whoever lives and believes in me will never die (spiritually). -- John 11:25-26
I will give them eternal life and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. -- John 10:28
In the Gospel of John alone there are 16 passages connecting the very words "eternal life" with faith in Jesus. And not only with the faith in Jesus, but that it is Jesus himself who is GIVING this eternal life. Indeed Jesus several times says: I AM the LIFE.
I I find it difficult to understand how Muslims can read this and conclude that Jesus never claimed to be God. Half his preaching is blasphemous if he was NOT God.
Jesus didn't say "I show you the way". He said "I AM the WAY"
Jesus didn't say "I tell you about the truth". He said "I AM the TRUTH,"
Jesus didn't say "Following my words might give you a chance at eternal life".
He said "I AM the LIFE". -- John 14:6
Jesus said: Follow me. [dozens of times]
Back to our text in the Gospel according to Mark, the next verses
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." 26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?" 27 Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."
There is a lot in this text which we have no time to go into at this time. It was the understanding of the disciples, that wealth is the visible blessing of God, and so they are astonished that Jesus says it is hard for rich people to get to heaven. They ask, if not even those on whom God's favor already rests who then? Jesus says, humanly it is impossible. NO MAN can enter heaven out of his own power. Jesus goes back to the teaching he was giving just before this man came up to him. Like the Children we have to receive it from God as a gift. With MAN it is impossible [out of his own righteousness and good deeds], but God makes it possible [out of his love and grace]. It isn't free of cost though. It does cost a hefty price to get to heaven. In fact, the cost is so high that no man can pay it. Therefore it is impossible with man. God has to pay, so that we can come in for free. What is the price for entering heaven? Let us read on, it is all in the text "you chose".
28 Peter said to him, "We have left everything to follow you!" 29 "I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields -- and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first."
Leaving ... to follow Jesus results in receiving ... eternal life.
How? How is this price paid that offers us heaven and eternal life which we can impossibly earn on our own? Just read on it is all there.
They were on their way up to Jerusalem,
with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished,
while those who followed were afraid.
Again he took the Twelve aside
and told them what was going to happen to him.
"We are going up to Jerusalem," he said,
"and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests
and teachers of the law.
They will condemn him to death
and will hand him over to the Gentiles,
who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him.
Three days later he will rise."
45 For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus' death on the cross is the price. There he will pay the price for our sin and ransom us from hell. Jesus, AGAIN predicts his death and resurrection and also says WHY it is going to happen.
Jesus didn't die? Why does he talk about it then all the time? Jesus never said he was God? Really?
The evidence is all over the place. Even in the very passages which Muslims think strengthen their case against the deity of Christ. If you look closer and read it carefully even those who do not believe it should be able to see it. I am quite confident that you can give me nearly any chapter of the Gospels and I can show you Jesus' explicit or implicit claim to be God. ["I am the resurrection and the life" is explicit in my eyes while Jesus comparison of his body with the Temple of God [God's dwelling place] is an implicit claim.]
Summary: The statement/question by Jesus "Why do you call me good? Only God is good" does ask this man for his motivation for praising Jesus. And it admonishes him not to attribute to him a quality which he is ultimately not willing to accept and act upon in obedience. Jesus does not reject that this attribute is appropriate for him, but more than just "any praise" Jesus desires that the praise that is offered to him is true and genuine. [In another article I had shown that Jesus does not ever reject worship.]
Furthermore, this passage contains some clear statements that link eternal life with our relationship to Jesus. These claims would be blasphemous if indeed Jesus were just a man like any other prophet. Only God is the giver of life. So, this very passage contains a quite strong (implicit) claim to divine status.
Some general statement on the "Islamic way of interpreting the Bible".
There are two objectives why I do all these explanations and articles. Whether deliberately or out of ignorance, there is so much distortion of the Bible by Muslims. My first hope and goal is that some time we will come to a place where we can read the Bible and at least agree WHAT it says. It is impossible to debate about its truth if we do not even agree about its content.
[And should we ever come to this stage, just maybe somebody might accept the truth of the Bible, I don't deny that this is a hope for me too. Just as some of you have expressed that if I will keep on learning about Islam, I might just one day be convinced of its truth.]
And I really truly want to understand the real content of Islam and the Qur'an. I am not interested to debate about a straw man Qur'an either i.e. about some interpretation which I have made up myself and has nothing to do with the true meaning of the Qur'an.
These comments are by the way NOT against Fred Rice, whose quote I put at the beginning of this exposition. He is a very nice fellow and I like the dialog with him. But the comment below just fits the flow of what I want to say in general.
I find it so very tiring to constantly having to fight about Muslim claims of what the Bible "allegedly says" and which have nothing to do with its true content. Intellectual honesty is a very important issue for me. I have a hard time being attracted to Islam by Muslims who distort the Bible in order to convince Christians that their faith isn't true. I don't say that you cannot use the Bible in the effort to convince me. But please don't constantly pull half a verse out of context, give it an incredibly fanciful interpretation, and then tell me that I am wrong about my faith and the Bible.
IF you want to use the Bible to convince me [and that is legitimate] please make some effort to really understand its true meaning. And ask about how we understand it and question this understanding until you are convinced that it is solid interpretation of the text. And if you are of a different opinion, then do back it up with a careful exegesis of the Biblical text in its context.
I really wish, that we can be honest on both sides and get into discussing the REAL meaning of both Bible and Qur'an instead of throwing claims around. It is so easy to make an accusation or a claim, and it is very time consuming to clear these things up. Slander is a hideous sin. Putting out false rumors is doing so much damage. And you will be held accountable by God for that. I think even the Islamic understanding of God and his commands does call you to truth and honesty. Why are so few Muslims concerned about honesty when they talk about the Bible and its contents?
Let us face the challenges honestly without distorting the truth about both Bible and Qur'an. Let us see what both really say and then discuss WHY we believe the one is true and the other is false. If we insist to say Jesus never claimed deity ACCORDING to the Bible we will always be stuck in the superficial level of did he or did he not say ... [ but how on earth can his statements that he himself being life and the giver of eternal life - not mean that he has to be God himself? In what sense is he God? I found some very good explanations recently which should help to clear away a lot of confusion hopefully soon in some more postings] and never get to the all important question, how we can determine whether he spoke the truth or not. HOW do we know Islam is right and Christianity is wrong? Christianity and the Bible AS IT IS belong together. We believe all the central doctrines of the Christian faith BECAUSE they are in the Bible, sometimes explicit sometimes implicit but clear nevertheless. Let us talk about TRUTH of these things, not about their existence only.
Not only WHAT do I believe, but WHY do I believe in Islam or Christianity.
Nearly all I have written on this group is about the WHAT [including this article] and we are not ever getting to the WHY and those "why questions" I have asked rarely get any answer. But Christians are constantly attacked for the what [and sadly most of the time with little understanding of it - by attacking things we don't even believe].
Let us try to move from
Do you believe that Muhammad is a prophet?
[you say "yes", I say "no" and we both know this] to
WHY do you believe that he is a prophet from the one true God?
What is the mark of a prophet? How do we discern true from false prophets? I have not gotten much of a feedback on that question that I asked a months ago. Do Muslims even ask these questions when they are just among themselves? Or is that "just accepted" without any questions?
Let us move from
'What do I believe the Qur'an/Bible says?' also to
'WHY do I believe that "what it says" is "truly word of God"?'
HOW does a Muslim KNOW that Muhammad and the Qur'an are from God, but Joseph Smith and the book Mormon are false? The claims are many. How do we discern the truth from the error?
I will still ask a lot of "what questions" in regard to Islam or the Qur'an also, because I have still a lot to learn. I am not going to give you one inch when you attack the Bible. I am relatively confident that I have a good grasp of the true Biblical content. But I will always assume that Muslims (at least a few knowledgable ones and we luckily have such ones on the group) know how to interpret the Qur'an and if I have "unorthodox" interpretations I will present them in the form of questions. In the same vein I always appreciate if you also ASK about the meaning of a certain Bible passage instead of assuming you exactly know that it supports your Islamic opinion and use it as an attack against the Christians.
May the peace of God be with you.
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