We are continuing Jesus' final approach to Jerusalem, and have now made it to Judea, where Jesus spoke about why you should not divorce, why you should consistently and persistently pray, and why you should not be self-righteous, but rather think of yourself as you are; a sinner. Then, similar to before, Jesus reminded His disciples that the Kingdom of God belongs to people who are like children (Matthew 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17).
A Subtly Rich Dilemma
In Matthew 19:16-26, Mark 10:17-27, and Luke 18:18-27, you will find the story of a man who asks Jesus about attaining eternal life. While these accounts are fairly similar, each of the accounts vary in some critical ways. While it would be tempting to call these variances merely products of differences in memory and/or perspective, the nature of the changes themselves suggest intent behind them. That becomes more apparent if we begin with the source; Mark. Let us look at the details in some length:
In Mark 10:17, you see:
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?" NIV
So we have the image of a man enthusiastically (he ran) and humbly (he got on his knees) approaching Jesus. This man seems like an ideal follower of Jesus. Note that this question the man raises propagates the idea of a works-based Salvation. Continuing on to Mark 10:18:
"Why do you call Me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone." NIV
This is one of the most enigmatic verses in the Gospels. It is tempting just to fixate on the apparent separation of Jesus and God. It appears that Jesus is denying that He is part-God by stating that God alone is good. Forget the Godly Trinity or otherwise divine form of Jesus for a moment and ask "why is Jesus not good?" The sinless, self-sacrificing Salvation of mankind is not good? That does not add up. So how are we to make sense of this verse?
Imagine a different Gospel and a different Jesus. Imagine Jesus fully as a man; unaware of a future claim of his divinity, unaware of his supposed role in the Salvation of mankind as we understand it today, and unaware of the way in which his legend would grow to Biblical proportions. Imagine a man with a deep respect for God, the knowledge that the religious system of his time was seriously broken, and a sense of humility in the face of the flaws of his own humanity.
I suspect that what we are seeing here is a glimpse of the real, historical Jesus; that this is based off of a real exchange Jesus had. This realistic perspective is further supported by the context of this anecdote. Mark 10:19 continues:
"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.'" NIV
If Mark's record is accurate, Jesus' reply is fascinating because it possibly shows a populist's understanding of the Ten Commandments. (That would be the popular version of the Ten Commandments as opposed to the Biblically-titled-Ten-Commandments version.) What do I mean by a "populist's understanding?" We will get to that in a moment.
If Jesus is referencing the Ten Commandments, then He skipped the first four Commandments: worship only God (Exodus 20:2-3), do not worship idols (Exodus 20:4-6), do not blaspheme (Exodus 20:7), and do not work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11). Why? I suspect that these would have been "no-brainers" in that cultural context. Obviously you have got to worship God because He is the one offering eternal life, and you would not want to insult such a God by praying to idols or sullying His name. Whole towns mostly shut down on the Sabbath (aside from foreign visitors, the occupying Roman government, etc.), so the Sabbath command is equally obvious and culturally enforced (despite Jesus' own possible transgressions of this Commandment). If Jesus had been speaking to a Gentile man in a foreign country, then it would have been necessary to mention these initial four, but it is reasonably safe to assume that the man addressing Jesus was a Jew and thus was institutionally and intimately familiar with these four Commandments. They "go without saying."
The remaining six Commandments would have been far more difficult for a Jew to keep, because they involve the daily challenges and temptations of life. Coincidentally, Mark's Jesus lists precisely six commandments. However, while five of these commandments clearly come from the Ten Commandments, "do not defraud" is not one of the Ten.
Defrauding is just another word for achieving dishonest gain. Back then, such ill-gotten gains were often had by sellers of goods who would use weights which were either heavier or lighter than the standard, or measuring vessels which were smaller or larger than the standard, depending on the type of transaction. This would have been a very common problem, given that the sellers were essentially self-policed. God spoke out against general fraud, and especially improper weights and measures, often enough that a common person could have thought that it was one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 18:21, Leviticus 19:13, Leviticus 19:35, Deuteronomy 25:13-16, Proverbs 11:1, Proverbs 20:23, Jeremiah 22:17, Ezekiel 28:18, Hosea 12:7, Amos 8:5, Micah 6:11).
Four other factors of circumstantial evidence support this real, human, populist-Jesus' understanding of the Ten Commandments:
- Jesus gave the Commandments out of Scriptural sequence. Honoring your parents was originally the Fifth Commandment, not the last one. If Jesus did have a solid grasp on the Scripture, it would be more likely that He would have enumerated them in exactly the same order as the Scripture.
- Consider the missing Commandment: do not covet what does not belong to you (Exodus 20:17). Coveting deals with the sinful inclinations and desires of the heart, something which was central to several of Jesus' alleged teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. So for Jesus to skip this one is akin to skipping a major component of His teaching.
- Further consider the Commandment against coveting: As opposed to the laws against defrauding, there was no prescribed punishment for coveting. Every other Commandment had associated punishments. So the issue of fraud would have been much more prevalent as a law than the Commandment against covetousness.
- The fourth factor calls us to keep in mind what the more-mythical Jesus would later say in Matthew 22:34-40 and Mark 12:28-34, or had earlier said in Luke 10:25-28, where He gave special prominence to only two commands: loving God, and loving your neighbor. In fact, in Luke's account, Jesus gave those two commands in reply to the very same question which spawned the episode we are studying here: "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
The story continues, in Mark 10:20-21:
"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." NIV
It seems that Jesus was a little too hasty in His display of love for the Commandment-abiding man. As the story continues in Mark 10:22-24, you get the sense that the man ultimately rejected Jesus' offer to follow Him because he did not want to give away his great wealth. Using the man as an example, Jesus tells His disciples in Mark 10:25 that:
"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." NIV
This verse spurs some controversy over whether or not anyone with wealth can be Saved. In Mark 10:27, Jesus would go on to say that Salvation of the rich was possible through God, but the precise meaning of that Salvation through God is not certain, because it could mean that God can change the heart of a rich person so that he or she chooses to give away their wealth.
More important, but less discussed, is the reaction which the disciples shared in Mark 10:26:
The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?" NIV
Why would the disciples be so amazed that it was nearly impossible for a rich man to be saved? Because, they believed that prosperity was a sign of righteousness; and that common belief was not without justification. In the Torah, God explains how He will grant great prosperity to those who obeyed His Law. It was part of God's covenant with the Jews.
The real Jesus was wise enough to discern this facade of righteousness for what it was, agreeing with the similar but rare sentiments of Scripture such as Job 21:7-21 and Ecclesiastes 7:15. It is likely that Jesus had seen first-hand how the downtrodden people could be relatively good when compared to the wickedness of some people who had power and wealth.
By the time that Matthew 19:16-26 and Luke 18:18-27 covered this episode, some of the problematic elements of Mark's story had been identified. Neither Matthew nor Luke record the man's humble approach to Jesus, or Jesus' mention of the non-Commandment commandment about fraud, or Jesus' too-hasty love for the man. Luke simply edited out those questionable parts. Matthew, on the other hand, gave it more thought and saw the Commandment issue more fully. So in Matthew 19:18-19 you find that he tried to correct the gaff recorded by Mark, and to cover the essence of the other important non-God-focused laws in the Torah, such as the laws against fraud, by aggregating the "love your neighbor as yourself" line from Matthew 22:34-40/Mark 12:28-34 with the intent of intoning that such love is the foundation of righteous behavior well beyond what any list of commandments could provide.
Obviously, there is a lot of speculation behind this study. However, by considering Jesus as just a man, a wise man but in no way or part a deity, it does make it easy to explain why he did not consider himself "good" and why he messed up in listing the Ten Commandments. On the other hand, if we take Jesus as divine, in part or in full, then these issues become very problematic. At best, we could say that Mark recorded it incorrectly. Yet if that is the case, and given that it is obvious that Matthew and Luke used Mark, in one form or another, as source material for their Gospels, then there is a very high probability of other errors propagated throughout the Gospels. In Truth, there is no error. So what do we have here?