Question: In Mark 10:17 a man asks Jesus, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus begins his response by saying, "Why do you call me good? No one is good-except God alone" (v. 18). Is Jesus here denying his goodness or his deity?

Answer: Before identifying what Jesus might have been saying in Mark 10:18, let's first eliminate from consideration some things that Jesus definitely was not saying. At various times, Jesus spoke of "good" people (see e.g. Matt. 5:45; 12:35; 22:10), with the Greek word for "good" ( agathos) in each case being the same one that appears in Mark 10:17-18. For instance, in the parable of the talents, the master praises those who make productive use of their talents by saying, "Well done, good and faithful servant!" (Matt 25:21, 23) Jesus, who never sinned (Heb 4:15) and who carefully completed the work that he was sent to do (John 17:4), certainly merited the same praise. So in Mark 10:18, Jesus was not confessing some moral imperfection.


In determining what Jesus was and was not saying in Mark 10:18, we should also keep in mind Matthew's depiction of the same incident. Matthew 19:17a, which parallels Mark 10:18, reads:


" `Why do you ask me about what is good?' Jesus replied. `There is only One who is good' " (NIV).


In Matthew's account the main focus is ethical ("What is good?") rather than christological ("Who is Jesus?"). God's unique goodness is affirmed, but there is no discussion about whether Jesus shares that goodness. This suggests that we should also concentrate on ethics rather than christology in interpreting Mark 10:18.

In both Mark 10:18 and Matthew 19:17, Jesus spoke of God alone as "good." God is uniquely good as the source of "every good and perfect gift" (James 1:17), including any goodness that we humans might claim to possess. D.T. Lancaster ([2], p. 375) points out that God is called HaTov ("the Good One") in Jewish daily prayers, following scriptures like Ps 107:1; 118:29; 119:68; 136:1; 145:9. The Mishnah (Berachot 9.2) prescribes the following blessing for anyone who sees rain or hears some welcome news: "Blessed is He who is good and does good."


One of God's greatest gifts is the Torah, his instruction in righteousness. The Talmud sometimes refers to the Torah as "the good," based on the parallelism between the phrases "good teaching" and "my Torah" in Proverbs 4:2 (see [2], p. 375).


Keeping all of this in mind, we can identify something else that Jesus was not saying in Matt. 19:17a and Mark 10:18. Since Jesus "taught as one who had authority" (Matt. 7:29; Mark 1:22) and had much to say about the proper interpretation and application of the Torah (see e.g. Matt. 5-7), he was not denying an ability to determine "what is good."


So what was Jesus saying in Mark 10:18? Many commentators believe that one of Jesus' main concerns was to make clear to the young man the source of true goodness. Dr. Donald A. Carson ([1] on Matt. 19:16-21) observes that the young man


"apparently thinks there are good things he can do, beyond the demands of the law, by which he can assure his salvation. Many Jews believed that a specific act of goodness could win eternal life . . .; and this young man, assuming this opinion is correct, seeks Jesus' view as to what that act might be."


By pointing the man toward God and the Torah, Carson notes, Jesus "will not allow anything other than God's will to determine what is good."


Jesus also wanted to show the young man that he had underestimated what real goodness might entail. Dr. Walter L. Liefeld [3] argues that in Luke 18:19, which parallels Mark 10:18, Jesus' main purpose was "to establish a standard of goodness infinitely higher than the ruler supposes it to be." The rich young ruler seemed to think that goodness was a thing he could achieve with some special deed. Jesus, however, pointed out that the character of God was the real standard of goodness (cf. Matt. 5:48).


The next few verses (Mark 10:19-22) support Liefeld's reading. The young man felt that he had been carrying out the commandments of God (Mark 10:20), but Jesus perceived that he had problems with an important commandment-the prohibition of covetousness, which is also intimately connected with the first commandment. The man's devotion to his wealth stood in the way of a wholehearted dedication to God. To break the man of his attachment to his possessions, Jesus urged him to give those possessions away. Liefeld comments that this "does not seem to be a universal requirement; it seems rather to be designed particularly for this man to shatter his covetousness."


In summary, it was not Jesus' purpose in Mark 10:18 to make a christological statement, either in denial or affirmation of his deity. (He did, however, imply something significant about his relationship to God in saying that the path to eternal life included becoming his disciple.) Instead, his primary concern was to direct the young man to God's word and character as the standard of true goodness.


1.  Donald A. Carson, Matthew, Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 8, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1984.

2.  D.T. Lancaster, Torah Club 4: B'sorat HaMashiach (The News of the Messiah), First Fruits of Zion, Littleton, Colorado, 2002.

3.  Walter L. Liefeld, Luke, Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 8, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1984.


Issue 19


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
14 Sep 2005, 16:50.