Among the most memorable stories in the Gospels is the story of the rich young ruler. Today’s passage gives us Mark’s account of the interchange between Jesus and this man, providing us a look at the identity of our Savior.
We read that as Jesus traveled to Jerusalem with His disciples, a man later identified as having “great possessions” came to our Lord with perhaps the most pressing question of human existence: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, 22). The man addressed Jesus as “Good Teacher.” This title moved Jesus not to answer the question asked of Him right away. Instead, our Lord replied with a question of His own, asking the man why he addressed Jesus as “good,” since God alone is good.
In many respects, Jesus’ initial response represented common first-century Jewish understandings of God. Rabbis in that day rarely accepted the title “good teacher,” because they so closely associated goodness with God that they were afraid to be called “good” for fear of encouraging blasphemy. They did not want their students to give them a title that properly belonged to the Lord alone.
We frequently criticize the first-century rabbis for misinterpreting Scripture; however, in this case there is truth in their insight that only God is inherently good. Scripture does say that human beings, even those who do not know the Lord, do things that may be called good. As Paul says in Romans 2:14, sometimes those who do not have God’s law in Scripture obey His law anyway because it is on their consciences. But the best deeds of human beings are good only in a relative sense, in comparison to the evil deeds of other people. That is because an inherently good act is motivated by wholehearted love for the Lord (Deut. 6:5; Mark 12:28–31), and fallen human beings never achieve this kind of love for God.
But did Jesus deny His own inherent goodness when He said only God is good? It is impossible that Mark wants us to read our Savior’s words that way, for the evangelist says later that no testimony that Jesus did wrong could stand (Mark 14:55). No, Jesus sought to get the man to reflect on his statement and why he called Jesus good. As Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary Mark, the man’s “words were accurate, but he did not understand why.” In talking to Jesus, the man was talking to God Himself, and our Lord wanted him to see that his words were therefore appropriate.