The Good

This coming Sunday is the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Cycle B of the Lectionary. It is a familiar story as Jesus is asked. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:17)

In the Hebrew Scriptures only God is called “good,” although it was permissible to speak of “the good man” (e.g. Proverbs 12:2 etc.) as a characteristic derived from one’s fidelity to God. But the expression “Good teacher” has no parallel in Scripture or Jewish sources. One can only take it as a true expression of the man’s estimation of Jesus as someone close to God who would teach with wisdom.

There is a lot that can be taken from Jesus’ reply. The latter is a reminder that God alone is referred to as “good” – something apart from kind, generous, or another associated attribute. The former part, the question, is never answered by the rich man. Why does he call Jesus “Good teacher?” Given the eschatological setting (eternal life) it would seem that the rich man has concluded that Jesus possesses unique knowledge and insight about entry requirements to life eternal. Lane [365] notes: “The form of the question (“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”) implies a piety of achievement which stands in contrast to Jesus’ teaching that a man must receive the Kingdom (or life) as a gift from God in his helplessness (10:15). In the light of v. 20, the man evidently thought that there were conditions to be fulfilled beyond those set forth in the Law.”

Jesus response directs the rich man’s attention to God – the source of goodness. He is challenged to consider “goodness.” No doubt, he regards himself as “good” in that he was sure he had fulfilled the commandments from his earliest days. Perhaps his question to Jesus is just a sign of looking for assurance. Perhaps he truly wanted a “to-do” list. Jesus’ question asks him to change the reference of his concerns and assurance from centered on what he himself can accomplish to what God will give him if we will receive it. Jesus’ answer invites him to recognize that his only hope is an utter reliance upon God, who alone can bestow eternal life.

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus answered him, ….19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.’” 20 He replied and said to [Jesus], “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”

In responding more directly to the question, Jesus directs the man to the Law (especially Dt 30:15 and following; Ezekiel 33:15 as well) – the one who obeys the law will live. Other than “you shall not defraud” the list is straight from the Ten Commandments ((Ex. 20:12–16; Deut. 5:16–20) and covers one’s moral conduct in relationship with others – certainly one measure of a person’s reverence for God and obedience to his precepts. There is one measure of “goodness” for the inquirer – do you accept the will of God revealed in the Law?

It is with confidence that the man replies “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Still, his question to Jesus suggests that behind a façade of security there was a heart which had lost much of its security and is now concerned with the dimensions of his own piety. Has he lost his joy and delight in God? Does he think that he now lacks the approval of God?

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