Good Teacher, What Must I Do?

Ordinary 28B

Mark 10: 17 30


In the three year cycle of meditating on the Sunday Gospels we come now to St Mark's version of a brief but very beautiful encounter between Jesus and a man who wants to pursue the spiritual life.

Our Lord has been coming south on the western side of the Jordan; possibly the town of Phasaelis is the location of the discussion on divorce, and the incident of the children. As he is leaving his residence there a youngish man of position and wealth runs up and greets him with an exaggerated show of reverence: he may have been one of the government officials in charge of the famous date-palm plantations at Phasaelis. He calls Jesus 'good', probably in the meaning of gracious and benevolent: he has just heard one of the mothers telling about Jesus' gentleness to the children. Such sensitiveness and understanding of the finer things appeals to him; he would like to be in the company of such a noble man. Jesus would not be asking anything difficult or hard; did he not indicate that the affectionate love of a child was the outlook required of his own disciples?

(The Gospel Story by Ronald Cox)

Some Notes On the Text

Verses 17 19

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher", he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good - except God alone.

You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother."

Our Lord is aware of the honesty and good will of this young man. Possibly he has the makings of a disciple; a few questions will test his suitability. So he takes up the line of thought of the young man, 'good' and 'eternal life'. His purely human outlook and desire for a more perfect life must be replaced by submission to the will of God, who alone is Goodness; Jesus wants no devotees who exclude the Father. He then gives the young man a brief examination of conscience on his observance of God's will, the commandments; to these he adds (in verse 21) the commandment of fraternal charity, the characteristic virtue of his kingdom.

(The Gospel Story by Ronald Cox)

Verses 20 25

"Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."

Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!"

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

But the young man is impatient for perfection; he is ambitious; he wants to do something heroic. Like the Samaritan woman, Jesus has prepared him for the real testing: is he prepared to abandon the one thing in the way of union with God? If he is, then Jesus will admit him to the highest vocation possible to man: to live the life of God's own Son. All the riches of heaven will be at his command; but first he must abandon those of earth.

Our Lord lived in poverty himself, and often counselled his disciples to do likewise, he had made it the first beatitude; he had spoken parables on the danger of riches. Yet his disciples were slow to understand; so he would emphasise it again, while the picture of the rich young man was still fresh in their minds. He expressed it in Hebrew fashion of exaggerated contrast: there is no foundation for changing 'camel' to rope (kamilos in Greek), or for taking 'a needle's eye' as the small gate of a city.

(The Gospel Story by Ronald Cox)

Verses 26 - 30

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?"

Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."

Peter said to him, "We have left everything to follow you!"

"I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel

will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life."

There is a sudden change from sorrow to joy, as Jesus turns to his chosen twelve. He will change the world's estimation of greatness by making these lowly followers of his the rulers of his kingdom on earth, the new Israel: 'they shall be first who were last.' They will be amply rewarded even in this life for what they have left; the new spiritual family of believers will posses a happiness far surpassing that of all natural ties. The mention of 'persecution', and omission of 'wife', prove that Jesus is not promising mere worldly satisfaction.

(The Gospel Story by Ronald Cox)


Much preaching on this passage tends to focus attention on verse 22 where we might be inclined to off-load our moral indignation at the obvious clinging of the man to his possessions. Rarely do we hear reference to the sorrow in our Lord's voice when he says, "How hard it is……." He is even more sad than his sincere enquirer. His tone is not one of judgement but pity: if only the man had remained with Jesus in dialogue, he would have arrived at a new level of understanding. He had asked, "What must I do?" The answer of Jesus is to a more important question, "What must I be?" He was leading his enquirer to be free of the baggage that was holding him bound captive. The man did not realise that Jesus was offering him a privileged position and was also helping him to reach a point where he could respond graciously and benevolently; for that is the definition of 'good' that Jesus wanted the man to exemplify. If the man wanted to inherit eternal life he must reflect the image of God in which he was made. That precedes all else. That is the meaning of the first commandment which the man had overlooked. He could not earn eternal life, but he could have it as a free gift of God, provided he always acknowledged that it was entirely a gracious and benevolent gift of God to be enjoyed and shared in the same spirit in which it was given.

Our lesson is one of great paradox and equally great importance. The wealthy man is everyone who will not let Jesus empower them with his Spirit of loving-kindness and magnanimity. It is only when we do that we can, ourselves, be restored to the true and full dignity of children of God.

We close with a concluding comment from Mary Betz:

The disciples of Jesus then and now are those who believe that God's power can work in and through them. None of us on our own can walk away from possessions, familiar places and people, or security of any kind, be it family, job, or the esteem of others. If we truly choose to make the seeking of God's reign of peace and justice the focal point of our lives as Jesus did, then God's spirit will empower us, and we will be given any resources we need - vision, strength, courage, food, friendship.

Jesus' good news was that eternal life is both now and forever: disciples will receive a hundredfold now and in the life to come. The bad news is that discipleship does not usually come easily, it comes with 'persecutions'. Growing in wisdom, in God's ways, in the discipleship of Christ, and speaking God's word all require strength and courage, which some of us only learn through practice!

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