Yesterday we looked at the beginning of the sketch of the rich young man drawn by Mark (10:17-22). We noted that, even before the young man says a word, his behaviour shows him to be a person of courage, humility and independence. We saw that there is much to learn from him, much to admire and love already. Today, we will listen to him speak. His first words are: Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life? (Mark 10:18)
I stop reading and let that question stand in my mind. Slowly I am filled with awe. He has asked the most important question he could have asked. It is more important than almost any other question imaginable, because almost any other question is a question about this world, and therefore is a question about what we must one day give up when we die. The young man, on the other hand, has the maturity to ask the famous double-barrelled question: given that I am alive, how do I live in this world in such a way as to attain eternal life in the next? The young man has already seen that our stay in this world is short and goals pertaining only to this short life are shallow. Death is the one certainty–he has acknowledged this, even though youth does not usually grasp this nettle with its soft hands. He knows he cannot do as most people do–deny that he is going to die. Jesus hears all these shades of meaning in the young man’s question and must have rejoiced. The very question, in fact, is the question that Jesus is about. Its answer is to found in the Incarnation itself. It becomes clear to me now as I turn these thoughts over and over in my mind that the young man’s question is not an idle one but is coming from a deep place. What an exceptional human being, I think to myself.
But what does Jesus do? For the first time in the story, Jesus speaks. And he is surprisingly challenging. As often happens, his actions are directly opposite to what I think I’d have done. I would have perhaps fallen all over myself to affirm the young man. “What a great question!” I’d probably have enthused with a big smile. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be smiling here. Something seems to be eating him. Rather than affirm the young man, Jesus seems testy. He asks the young man why he calls him good, when goodness is the attribute of God alone (Mk.10:19).
This has always been a difficult remark for me to understand. It sounds as though Jesus doesn’t want to be called ‘good,’ which would be sort of crazy. But suddenly I think that maybe this is not so at all, maybe Jesus has no objection to being called ‘good.’ Maybe what he means is that he wants the young man to explain why he is attributing to Jesus a goodness that is usually attributed to God alone. He wants to know what the young man means by it. We will say more about this in tomorrow’s post.
In fact, the rich young man does not rise to Jesus’ challenge and explain why he used the word ‘good’ in his address of Jesus. And Jesus has other things on his mind, more important to him, and doesn’t linger over the issue. Instead, he seems to see that that question is too much for the young man and so he quickly moves on to his main point. He is still challenging. He remarks that in giving the Ten Commandments to humanity, God has already given us everything needed to inherit eternal life. The question “what should I do to inherit eternal life” doesn’t really need to be asked, Jesus implies; the answer is obvious. Keep the Commandments. You know them.
Then the young man says something very unusual. He claims that he has kept the Commandments from his earliest days (Mark 10:24). I am astonished: the young man is not conscious of any wrong-doing in relation to the Commandments.
As I mull this, I recall that others whom Jesus met and healed during his public ministry are conscious of personal, moral weakness and sinfulness, conscious of wrongdoing, and some have even experienced demonic possession. These intensely painful wounds of body, soul or character, however, actually function in a positive way in relation to those who suffer them; they draw Jesus’ mercy and compassion, they enable the suffering individual to encounter Jesus on the deepest possible level. Our young man in Mark, on the other hand, confidently declares “I have kept all the commandments from my youth.” He is, seemingly, perfect.
How does this strike you? And what does it make you think when you reflect on your own experience of woundedness and moral weakness? Let’s give this some time and return tomorrow for more.