One of the more surprising sayings of Jesus is one recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels, in which he responded sharply to the apparent compliment of a rich young ruler who addressed him as “Good Teacher.” Mark’s account of the exchange reads thus:
“As Jesus was starting on his way again, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to receive eternal life?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus asked him. "No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)
Robert H. Stein, in his recent commentary on Mark, identifies four possible interpretations of Jesus’ answer:
“Jesus’ response in 10:18, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone’ has troubled exegetes through the centuries. The emphatic position of ‘me’ (Greek: me) in the sentence heightens the problem – [literally] ‘Why me do you call good?’...What Jesus objects to in the rich man’s address is unclear. (1) Is he objecting to the application of the designation ‘good’ in the sense of being ‘perfect’ to any human being, even himself (i.e., ultimate goodness and perfection belong to God the Father alone)? In other words, is he seeking to have the man rethink the idea of goodness, since there is no one that is ultimately good/righteous (Romans 3:10) but God? Is he saying that one should focus one’s attention upon God, without in any way implying that he (Jesus) himself is not good? (2) Is he probing the sincerity of the man’s address? (3) Is it possible that Jesus is denying that he is good, because like any other human he too has sinned and fallen short (Romans 3:23)? (4) Or is Jesus, far from acknowledging that he is not good, pointing out that the logical conclusion of the man’s correct address is to acknowledge his own divine goodness?” (pp. 468-469)
We can follow Stein in readily ruling out interpretations (2) and (3). Mark 10:21a shows us that Jesus acknowledged the man’s sincerity. As for acknowledging his own sinfulness, this interpretation conflicts with the rest of the NT, which never attributes sin to Jesus (Stein cites 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 7:26; 1 Peter 1:19; 2:22 in support of this).
This leaves us with (1) and (4). Of these, Stein prefers (1), stating that “Jesus is contrasting God’s absolute goodness to his own, which was subject to growth” (p. 469).
Before deciding on an interpretation, we can make a number of basic observations on the passage:
a. The ruler addressed Jesus as “Good Teacher.” There is no reason from the context to think that either the ruler’s form of address, or Jesus’ reply, had anything to do with Jesus’ human nature.
b. The language Jesus used, “No one is good save one,” seems to reflect Psalm 14:1-3 (and 53:1-3) where the focus is on moral behaviour as opposed to moral nature – “There is none who does good, not even one.”
c. Jesus questioned the rich young ruler’s reason for addressing him as good, but he did not say that the man was wrong in doing so!
The assertion that Jesus rejected the title “Good Teacher” is difficult to justify in light of other titles that he claimed for himself or accepted from others. If he objected to “Good Teacher,” how could he refer to himself as “Good Shepherd” (John 10:11), which amounts to the same? Why did he resist the Pharisees’ urge to rebuke his disciples who proclaimed, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke19:38)? How could he permit his disciples to address him, “O Lord” (Matthew 15:22) and “the Holy One of God” (John 6:69)? How could he fail to be mortified at being addressed directly by the Most High as “My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17)?
Besides the things that were said by and to Jesus during his ministry, we have remarkable things said about Jesus by his apostles after his resurrection. The disciples were present at the exchange with the rich young ruler (Mark 10:23). Yet in Acts, the apostles referred to Jesus as “The Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14) and “The Righteous One” (Acts 7:52; 22:14) – always with reference to the days of his flesh! Stephen spoke of the coming of the Righteous One, implying that Jesus was the Righteous One intrinsically from his arrival on the scene, as opposed to earning this title over time through flawless conduct. It is difficult to conceive of the apostles referring to the mortal Jesus in such terms if they understood him to have renounced the title ‘Good Teacher.’
So what then was Jesus getting at with his question to the rich young ruler? We will propose a suggested interpretation in the next blog.