We might well ask today why the rich young man says to Jesus, "Good teacher" (Mark 10:17). Each of us has surely known and experienced a teacher who taught us well, but I do not think we would every address them as "good." Why does this young man do so?
It could well be that he tries to justify himself and so flatters Jesus by calling him not just a teacher, but a good teacher. But - as is always the case with Jesus - flattery gets the young man nowhere. He questions Jesus simply as a teacher and nothing more. He refuses to recognize his divinity. As he prefaced his question, the young man knew the answer that Jesus would give.
"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" The young man knew the law well and he knew when Moses presented the Ten Commandments and the Law to the House of Israel he said to them:
Here, then, I have today set before you life and prosperity, death and doom. If you obey the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin on you today, loving him, and walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments, statutes and decrees, you will live . . . I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may life, by loving the LORD, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him (Deuteronomy 30:15-16, 19-20).
To his question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life," Jesus answers, "You know the commandments" (Mark 10:19). The implication is clear: follow the commandments and you will inherit eternal life; keep them and you will live.
And yet, somehow the young man senses that it is not enough to simply follow the commandments for he says in response, "Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth" (Mark 10"20). Notice that Jesus is no longer the good teacher, but simply the teacher; he has failed – or so it seems – to answer the longing of this man's heart and now Jesus no longer receives his respect, feigned though it may have been.
Throughout all of his life this young man has obeyed the letter of the law, as it were; he has kept the commandments, but still he recognizes there is more to be done, else he would never have asked the question in the first place.
Consider the internal struggle this man must have fought. He had been told that the simple following of the commandments would bring him life and peace. He has followed all of the commandments all of his life, and yet he has not yet experienced the fullness of life and peace. It tears him up inside each day. "What more must I do?," he asks himself. "Where did I go wrong? Why isn't it working?"
In the midst of this wrenching struggle he hears of this man Jesus and he goes to him, but only as Jesus is leaving town. He must have given his question much thought. Could he really ask this question? How could this man know the answer? The young man finally plucked up his courage and went to Jesus giving him – however briefly – the benefit of the doubt. He would ask and see what Jesus would say.
"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" The answer comes, but it tears him apart. Perhaps he knew the answer all along, though he could not bring himself to accept it. The answer comes: "You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (Mark 10:21).
How his heart sank! As Jesus spoke to him he could tell that Jesus knew his anguish and that he "loved him" (Mark 10:21). And yet, though he knew that Jesus loved him, he knew also that he could not return this love. "His face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions" (Mark 10:22).
He had followed the commandments out of a deep sense of legal obligation, but never had he followed them out of a true sense of love. He did not love; he obeyed. This young man could not apply the words of Solomon to Jesus, as so many around him had already done:
I preferred [him] to scepter and throne, and deemed riches nothing in comparison with [him], nor did I liken any priceless gem to [him]; because all gold, in view of [him], is a little sand, and before [him], silver is to be accounted mire (Wisdom 7:8-9).
The rich young man failed to see in Jesus Christ the "treasure buried in the field" (Matthew 13:44). Referring to himself Jesus said, "When [a man] finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it" (Matthew 13:46). This the young man could not do.
In finding Christ the Teacher and asking his all-important question, the young man set his hand to the plow, but he did not keep focused; his possessions distracted him and he looked away from Jesus. "No one who sets a hand to the plough and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62).
Thus, the young man finds himself in a horrible dilemma, and one of his own making. Somehow in the depths of his heart he knew that what Jesus said was true, that the abandonment of the world and the following of Christ is the only way to eternal life. He knew that when Jesus said,
Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come (Mark 10:29-30).
Peter and the Apostles placed their love and trust in Jesus alone and gave "up everything and followed" him (Mark 10:28). The rich young man could not find the courage within himself to fully accept Jesus' heavy demand, to relinquish everything in order to obtain him. His earthly possessions – his house, his money, his books, his music, his chariot, his artworks, his food, his security – all of this meant too much to him and he could not bring himself to abandon it. He would not make Jesus his one and only possession.
The young man was too practical, too pragmatic, too organized, too busy, and too prepared. Unlike Peter and the others, the young man could not make the words of Solomon his own:
Beyond health and comeliness I loved [him], and I chose to have [him] rather than the light, because the splendor of [him] never yields to sleep. Yet all good things together came to me in [his] company, and countless riches at [his] hands (Wisdom 7:10-11).
What holds you back today from abandoning yourself fully to Christ? What worries or anxieties keep you from trusting Jesus' words and following after him? Let them go. They are nothing in comparison with him. Relinquish them into his hands, lest your face, too, fall, and you, too, go away sad (cf. Mark 10:22).
"What that man heard, most beloved, we, too, have heard. The gospel of Christ is in heaven, but it does not cease to speak on earth. Let us not be dead to him, for he thunders. Let us not be deaf, for he shouts" (Caesarius of Arles, Sermons, 153.1).