Mark 10:19 The Rich Man Wants Eternal Life
Question: Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Answer: Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.
“Why do you call me good?” This abrupt response puzzles me. I think, as with other surprising responses, it is tailored to the person with whom Jesus was speaking. It suggests that this conversation began with a compliment from one good person to another. I recognize you as good, the rich man said, because I also am good. Jesus brought him up short when he asserted that “no one is good except God alone.” While this is not a direct quotation from Jesus’s Bible, it sums up multiple references to God’s goodness in the Psalms, and in many of those, God’s goodness is linked directly to his loving kindness, his mercy. This mercy, this care for the weak and helpless, is what the rich man is apparently specifically missing.
But first, Jesus made the “law-abiding” answer: “You know the commandments: do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not defraud; honor your father and mother.” Interestingly, Jesus did not begin with Exodus 20:3: “You shall have no other gods before me,” nor did he include the prohibition of sacred images, or swearing oaths falsely using God’s name. He omitted the positive command about keeping the Sabbath. Instead, he focused on the ethical commands, the ones which detail how we are to treat other people. (See Exodus 20:12-16; Deut. 5:16-20.)
Jesus concisely summed these ethical commandments up, with the interesting addition of “do not defraud,” which extends “do not covet” into the actions that result from covetousness. Fraudulent practices are condemned in some detail in various teachings about honesty in business practices in both the Pentateuch and the Prophets.
Embedded in this story are numerous political and theological threads, making the answer a complicated one, despite its apparent simplicity. The questioner who asked about eternal life, if sincere, must have been a Pharisee. They were at odds with the Sadducees over this issue. The Pharisees also were strict followers of their interpretation of Mosaic Law, both the written and oral traditions. By agreeing that “eternal life” is possible, Jesus aligned himself with the Pharisees in their debate with the Sadducees. And yet he was in constant conflict with the Pharisees over how to fulfill the Law. Specifically here, when Jesus summed up the “other-facing” laws so concisely, he confronted the complexity of the traditions followed by the Pharisees.
Jesus’s assertion that “no one is good except God alone” confronted the rich man’s awareness of his own goodness, as exposed in the exchange in which the rich man asserts that he has kept the commandments from his youth. This came out of Jesus’s love for the questioner, a love which insisted on his looking honestly at himself.
Then Jesus answered with “sell all you have and give it to the poor”; Jesus reasserted that mercy is an essential aspect of goodness. He challenged the rich man to radical generosity. Mercy goes beyond the law of Moses into the law of love; now it isn’t about stealing or defrauding but about giving.
Further, Jesus said: “Take up your cross and follow me.” Crucifixion was the punishment for rebels against the civil power of the Romans. In this context, Jesus signified the need to rebel against the idea that legalistic fulfillment of the law is enough, the need instead to embrace the idea of a whole-self giving away of privilege and power. This rebellion, though figurative, would have made real the worshipful attitude the rich man began with (“good master”). “You call me good, but none is good but God; if you really believe I am good (if you really believe I am God), throw away your life and follow me. This is the absolute best I can offer to those I love.”