Inheriting the Kingdom: promise

ChineseJesus-rich-man17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The Way. The beginning of the Gospel according to Mark begins with John the Baptist citing Isaiah speaking of the messenger: “he will prepare your way…Prepare the way of the Lord.” (Mark 1:2-3) In both verses the underlying word is hodos. There are other places in Mark when hodos is used and is translated as ‘way” – e.g., “the way of God in accordance with the truth,” and describing Jesus and the apostles “on the way” in 8:27 and 10:32. So it is odd that in 10:17, the same word hodos is translated as journey in the New American Bible (NAB).

The NAB translation of “journey” in v. 17 and “road” in v. 32 misses a connection that Mark makes with the use of the Greek hodos used in both verses. The meaning of the word is “way; road; journey” [EDNT 491 ]. The choice of journey – which is accurate – takes away an easy reference for the reader to point to a figurative meaning of one’s “way of life.” This reference to the simpler meaning of hodos became a title for the believers in Christ, “who belong to the Way” (Ac 9:2; also Ac 18:25, 26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14).

If Mark intends hodos to remind us of Jesus’ way heading towards the cross, then we have the contrast between Jesus who is going to give up his very life for the sake of the gospel and the rich man who can’t part with his possessions.

The Promise. A man (rich young man in Luke) enthusiastically approaches Jesus. The man’s kneeling posture and the formal address together with the weighty character of his question—all suggest deep respect for Jesus and genuine earnestness on the part of the man himself. He came to consult Jesus as a distinguished rabbi and showed him the deference reserved for revered teachers of the Law. He asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” As Stoffregen notes, it is a rather odd question – if inheritance is a gift, then you need do nothing. He writes:

“Could you image going up to the richest man in the world and asking, ‘What must I do to inherit your great fortune? or even a small part of your fortune?’ The answer would probably be, ‘Get out of here! You can do nothing. I don’t know you. You’re not related to me. You’re not getting even one penny from me.’ On the other hand, it is nearly as absurd for a child to ask a father, ‘Dad, what must I do to inherit part of your estate?’ The answer would probably be, ‘You can’t do anything. You are my child, so you will naturally inherit it. Your name has been in my will since the time of your birth.’”

I think we quickly grasp his point, but I would suggest that we should stop for a moment and consider how often our religious language raises questions about our understanding of the great gifts of God – those things that can never be earned. It shows up in simple expressions most notably around special feast days, especially ones in which Catholics, of good intent and disposition, speak of “getting” grace because they prayed a novena, went to Confession, and received Eucharist. Every one of those moments was an encounter with God’s unmerited grace and love. The only question is whether you were open and “received” the grace. Perhaps I make too much of small nuances in language, but it seems to me “getting” grace lingers on the border of “I did this and that and now I have earned…” We are owed nothing, but we are promised everything!

The Good. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

In the Hebrew Scriptures only God is called “good,” although it was permissible to speak of “the good man” (e.g. Proverbs 12:2 etc.) as a characteristic derived from one’s fidelity to God. But the expression “Good teacher” has no parallel in Scripture or Jewish sources. One can only take it as a true expression of the man’s estimation of Jesus as someone close to God who would teach with wisdom.

There is a lot that can be taken from Jesus’ reply. The latter is a reminder that God alone is referred to as “good” – something apart from kind, generous, or another associated attribute. The former part, the question, is never answered by the rich man. Why does he call Jesus “Good teacher?” Given the eschatological setting (eternal life) it would seem that the rich man has concluded that Jesus possesses unique knowledge and insight about entry requirements to life eternal. Lane [365] notes: “The form of the question (“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”) implies a piety of achievement which stands in contrast to Jesus’ teaching that a man must receive the Kingdom (or life) as a gift from God in his helplessness (10:15). In the light of v. 20, the man evidently thought that there were conditions to be fulfilled beyond those set forth in the Law.”

Jesus response directs the rich man’s attention to God – the source of goodness. He is challenged to consider “goodness.” No doubt, he regards himself as “good” in that he was sure he had fulfilled the commandments from his earliest days. Perhaps his question to Jesus is just a sign of looking for assurance. Perhaps he truly wanted a “to-do” list. Jesus’ question asks him to change the reference of his concerns and assurance from centered on what he himself can accomplish to what God will give him if we will receive it. Jesus’ answer invites him to recognize that his only hope is an utter reliance upon God, who alone can bestow eternal life.

Notes

Mark 10:17 setting out on a journey. Jerusalem as the destination of the journey is made explicit in Mark 10:32. In the Greek, hodos, (vv. 17,32) is more literally translated as “the way.” Some who argue that this simpler translation is better suited to the verses as it takes on a figurative meaning of one’s “way of life.” Even more specifically, hodos became a title for the believers in Christ, “who belong to the Way” (Acts 9:2; also Acts 18:25, 26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14).

what must I do to inherit eternal life? The question presupposes that salvation is the product of human effort. This is the only place that Mark uses the verb “inherit.”

Mark 10:18 Why do you call me good? Why do you call me good?: Jesus repudiates the term “good” for himself and directs it to God, the source of all goodness who alone can grant the gift of eternal life; cf Mt 19:16–17. Jesus rejected the “good teacher” greeting of the questioner, probably to avoid condescension by the rich man. The man’s remark was not insincere, just misdirected. Jesus would answer as required, and not because he was complimented. Jesus’ saying that “only God is truly good” puts the man on notice that he would get a direct reply and that his only concern was with God’s honor.

Sources

  • William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974) 362-73
  • Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, available at www.crossmarks.com/brian/
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