The Rich Young Ruler's Refusal
Mark 10:17-31
And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master…


1. The position of this man. We have in this section a most interesting narrative. The subject of it was a young man, in the bright and beautiful prime of life, as St. Matthew tells us; a ruler of the synagogue, as St. Luke informs us; an exceedingly rich man, as all three synoptists relate; for St. Luke tells us he was very rich, and St. Matthew and St. Mark that he had great possessions. Besides this, he was an exceedingly interesting person - frank, sincere, amiable; he thus possessed many winning and endearing qualities. Nor was this all; he was outwardly moral, outwardly observant of God's Law, and so not far from the kingdom of heaven.

2. His mode of approaching the Savior. His approach was all that could be desired. It was marked by thorough earnestness and sincerity. Our Lord was going forth into the way, or on his way - starting, it would seem, on his last journey from Peraea beyond Jordan to Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha and Lazarus. This young ruler, in breathless haste, lest he should miss his opportunity before the Savior departed, came running up and fell on his knees before him. The manner, too, in which he put his question was highly respectful, and even reverential, as appears from the words with which he addressed him. By the title "Good Master" he acknowledged his authority as a teacher, and his kindness of heart, having just witnessed the graciousness and benevolence with which he had received the little children and folded them in his arms. Our Lord appears to reprove him in a gentle way on the ground of this title, and especially to reject the term "good," thus applied to him; he apparently refuses to accept it as a mere conventional expression, flippantly and thoughtlessly applied. But, on examining the subject more closely, it will be evident that our Lord wished to elevate the young rulers notion about himself as the Messiah, and raise his thoughts to God. He wished to give this young man a hint that he was mere than an ordinary teacher in Israel, that he was more than a mere teacher possessing great excellence of character and goodness of heart; that he was a Teacher sent from God, and therefore invested with highest authority, and holding a Divine commission - yea, and himself Divine. To this end he requires the ruler to reflect on what ground he applied the term "good," reminding him that there was no one absolutely good save God, and implying the inconsistency of his position, and the unwarrantableness of his calling him "good" when he did not regard him as Divine. Our Lord intimates, obscurely indeed, that, while rejecting the term in the sense in which the ruler meant it, as a mere complimentary one paid to a rabbi of eminence, and regarding it as inapplicable from that standpoint, he can only accept it in conjunction with the One alone who is good, that is, God. But, as the ruler did not apply it in that sense, our Lord takes occasion to lift up his thoughts to the only One absolutely good; as though he said, "Why askest thou me concerning that which is good? One there is who is good;" and, "Why callest thou me good?" and, Why inquirest about the good from any mere human teacher whose goodness of head and heart, however great, is necessarily defective? Why not go at once to the One who is alone truly and absolutely good, and the Fountain-head of all goodness, and whose will is the rule and standard of what is good; while the revelation of his mind on the subject is made known in the commandments?

3. His motive in coming. With all this young man's advantages he felt his need of something better; he had cravings for something higher. His wealth, with all the facilities it afforded, and all the profits it implied, and all the pleasures it procured, did not satisfy his desires or supply his spiritual needs. His longings for something better than earth or sense could furnish remained unappeased; there was still a void within which the world could not fill; he felt irrepressible yearnings for immortality. He had heard the promise of a kingdom made to the little children who believed, or rather to all who possessed their childlike spirit. He had himself come recently into the inheritance of much wealth and great possessions, and thus he is prompted to ask the question very natural under the circumstances, "What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life'?" He was alive to the worth of his soul; he felt the paramount importance of eternal life. His question, therefore, was not prompted by mere curiosity, neither was it a cold or careless inquiry; it was a downright earnest one; it was a matter of life or death with him.


1. Nature of the inquiry. The inquiry is that recorded by St. Matthew, "What lack I yet?" to which the answer of our Lord is that recorded by St. Mark in the words, "One thing thou lackest." We must first consider the question itself. This was a second question; the first was, "What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" and contained the very essence of Pharisaism, which made religion consist in doing - scrupulously adhering to outward rules of conduct. This young man's error was that of the better part of his nation; for "Israel, which followed after the Law of righteousness, did not attain to the Law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the Law."

2. His Pharisaism. This young man's first inquiry shows that he expected to entitle himself to eternal life by doing many great things, or some special good thing, as the question in St. Matthew's Gospel is, "What good thing shall i do, that I may inherit eternal life?" To this our Lord replied, "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments." By this reply he meant to convince him

(1) that "by the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in his (God's) sight: for by the Law is the knowledge of sin;" and

(2) to bring him to the conclusion that "the righteousness of God without the Law is manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe."

3. His surprise. The young ruler was somewhat surprised at the common* place nature of the answer, and, lest he had misheard or misapprehended it, he proceeds to inquire further, "Which" or, more accurately, "What kind of commandments?" He evidently expected that some new commandment would be announced by the great Teacher, or that some recondite rule of the oral Law would be set forth, or that certain minute ceremonial regulations would be made known to him. But no; the plainest, simplest, broadest commandments of the Decalogue were repeated in his hearing. The thing appears at first sight so plain, the direction so very trite, and the answers so commonplace, that the ruler, half puzzled by this very plainness, and surprised at the simplicity of the instruction of One whom he regarded as a distinguished public teacher, if not something more, exclaims in amazement, - Of what kind? Which commandments do you mean? Is it those ten uttered in an audible voice on Sinai, amid thunderings and lightnings, and other circumstances of splendor and solemnity? Is it those ten that were delivered to our nation amid scenes of such unparalleled publicity as well as grandeur? Is it those ten words, as they are beautifully called in the original, which are now hoary with the antiquity of long years gone by, which claim the respect of the whole Hebrew commonwealth, and to which every respectable member of the community renders an outward obedience? Is it those ten commandments to which your direction refers - commandments with which compliance is enforced even by an earthly judge, and transgression of which is visited with penalties by the common law?

4. Our Lord's repetition of the commandments. In reply to this further inquiry of the young ruler, our Lord specifies the commandments of the second table in the following order, according to St. Mark: - the seventh, sixth, eighth, ninth, tenth, and fifth. The expression "Defraud not" is taken by some

(1) as a repetition of the eighth;

(2) by others as a summary of the four commandments that preceded, or of the fifth that succeeded and that by way of anticipation; or

(3) it is a peculiar form of the tenth, which we regard as the most natural and correct opinion. These commandments he quoted from the second table as the most obvious; appending a general principle which embraced all these commandments, and summarily comprehended the whole of the second table of the Law. That principle was love - love to brother man, and a love required to be equal in intensity and extent to the love of self, as it is added, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

5. Our Lord's object in this. He saw that this in many respects estimable young man depended on his works for eternal life, and he reminded him that he must in that case keep the commandments, and keep them perfectly. The Savior meant to show him that such had not been the case. He meant to show him that he was a sinner, and as such needed a Savior; he meant to show him that, as far as the Law is concerned, every mouth must be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God. Even if a man from a certain point - an early period in life - kept all the requirements of God's Law at all times and in all ways, what would atone for previous sins or remove original guilt?

6. The Law a schoolmaster. He meant to show him that he had "sinned, and come short of the glory of God;" that, as a matter of fact, he had been very far from attaining to universal, perfect, and constant obedience; that, in the absence of such obedience, all were concluded under sin, and that there was no exception. In this manner usually the way is prepared: the filthy rags of self-righteousness are torn off; men are led to abandon their own righteousness as a ground of pardon and acceptance before God, and to rest upon a better righteousness, even that "everlasting righteousness," which Daniel and others of the prophets long years before had predicted as to be wrought out and brought in by Messiah, Such was probably the import of that instructive symbolic transaction, of which we read in the third chapter of Zechariah, when the filthy garments were taken away from Joshua the high priest; and when a fair mitre was set upon his head, and he was clothed with change of garments, as it is there written: "Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will Clothe thee with change of raiment." Such is the significance of the contrast between the righteousness of the Law and the righteousness of faith in the tenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans: "For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the Law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them .... If thou shalt confess with thy month the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised: him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation."

7. True obedience inward and spiritual. When the young man had heard our Lord's answer he looked upon the whole matter as a very simple thing, and possibly stood higher in his own estimation than he had done before, if that were possible. He seemed to say, If these be the commandments which you include in your direction, and if these be all, then have I obeyed them - every one of them - from my youth up, nay, from childhood till the present hour; they have been the rule of my life. Is there anything still wanting? Have you any new commandment to add? Is there anything needed to supplement those which I long since learnt from the Law, and to which I have duly conformed from the earliest dawn of reason? And though you have overlooked the traditions of the elders, I have neither forgotten them nor neglected them, but observed them most punctiliously. What then remains? What lack I yet? Ah, how little this young man knew of his own heart! how little of the spirituality of God's Law! how little of the exceeding broadness of the commandment! In the Law of God, as in the love of God, there are a length and breadth and depth and height to which this ruler was entirely a stranger, he had not, we are sure, been one of the audience when our Lord preached his sermon on the mount; or, if he had, he must have failed entirely to comprehend the explanation of the Law as contained in that sermon. At all events, he remained apparently ignorant that the Law in its requirements extends to the heart as well as to the life; to the principles as well as to the practice; to the feelings as well as to the facts; to the internal passions as well as to the external acts; to the inmost thoughts as well as the outward deeds. This young man had, we doubt not, maintained an unblemished character before the eyes of men; he had been guiltless of such sins as are public and common in the world, and free from all notorious vices; he had kept the Law in the letter and as prohibiting outward acts of sin; for the Savior does not call his assertion in question. Besides, had he not been a young man of blameless conduct as well as of promising talents, he could not have attained, and at an early age, his honorable position as one of the rulers of a local synagogue, or perhaps a member of the Sanhedrin, or great council of the nation.

8. The young man's deficiency in his own department of morals. "What lack I yet?" may be taken as a boast rather than a question for information or an inquiry about future duty. He lacked much, we are sure, even on the low ground of morality; for taking the Law in its spiritual sense, and as Christ expounded it, he had no doubt offended at many times and in many ways; "for in many things we offend all." Instead of the self-righteous, self-sufficient assertion, "all these have I kept from my youth up," had he looked inward he might, nay, he would, have found reason to say, "All these have I broken;" for we have it on the authority of God's own Word, that "every imagination of the thoughts of man's heart is only evil continually." The first commandment which our Lord specified, according to the common order as given by St. Matthew, is, "Thou shalt do no murder." The young ruler judged himself guiltless of any breach of this commandment, because his hands had been free from blood, lie forgot that blood-guiltiness attaches to the heart as well as to the hand, to the tongue as well as to the arm that wields the deadly weapon. The teeth, as we learn from the fifty-seventh psalm, may be murderous as "spears and arrows;" and the tongue may wound as mortally as "a sharp sword;" while "out of the heart," as our Lord himself has declared, "proceed murders." "All these have I kept from my youth up." And hast thou never, O young man, been angry with thy brother without a cause - when no real offense was offered and no insult intended? Hast thou never indulged the angry feeling till it formed itself in the contemptuous expression? Hast thou never said to thy brother, "Raca?" Hast thou never permitted thine anger to proceed still further, till it vented itself in terms of deepest guilt? Hast thou never said to thy brother, "Thou fool"? If so - if thy heart be thus pure, thy tongue innocent, and thy hand without stain of thy brother's blood - then in regard to this commandment thou mayest say, "What lack I yet?" But we may take one other example. "Thou shalt not commit adultery." This is another requirement of God's Law, and another branch of duty towards man. Here the young ruler again declares his innocence: "This also have I kept." Here again we must take him to task and catechize him. Is it, O young man, the external act merely of which you plead not guilty, or do you include what God's Law includes, the impure thought and the wanton imagination? Do you include the secret desire of the heart, the lascivious look of the eye, and the indelicate utterance of the lips? Or have you never read of "eyes full of adultery," of evil concupiscence, and of filthy communication proceeding out of the mouth? Have you never listened to or taken part in the lewd song, or the foul anecdote, or the equivocal innuendo, or the expression of double meaning? Have you ever regarded the vengeance of Heaven as due to every wanton affection, and every unchaste desire, and every roving glance, and every lustful look, and every lascivious gesture, and every impure word? Has your observance of this requirement always been thus severe, strict, and spiritual? If so, then mayest thou say with regard to this commandment also, "What lack I yet?"

9. The Scripture standard of morality. Oh, how exceeding broad and deep, pure and spiritual, are the commandments of an infinitely pure and holy God! In his sight the bright and beautiful sky above us is not pure, and in his presence the angels themselves - those pure spirits whose nature is like fiery flame, and who minister the high behests of the Eternal - are not unimpeachable with folly. Morality of outward action is highly commendable, and may pass current in sight of men like ourselves; but who can boast of his obedience, inward as well as outward, to all God's commandments, in the sight of that God whom the prophet in vision saw sitting on a throne high and lifted up, before whom holy seraphic intelligences veiled their faces in deepest homage and holiest reverence, while the burden of those seraphim's song was a just acknowledgment of his infinite holiness, saying, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory"? Who, in the sight of that God who "searcheth all hearts, and understandeth all the imaginations of the thoughts," can, like this young ruler, ask proudly, or even boastfully, "What lack I yet?"


1. The great defect. "One thing thou lackest" was our Lord's declaration. But that one thing was the most important, the most needful, and the most indispensable of all. He was outwardly moral, but a stranger to spiritual religion; he had a form of Godliness, but wanted the power. The one thing he lacked was love, and love which manifests itself in entire self-surrender to God and in self-denial for man. After our Lord had reminded him of the commandments and of the duties required by God's Law, he stated a general principle that included them all, saying, as St. Matthew records it, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." In fact, the whole Law, including the commandments of both tables, is fulfilled in that one word "love" - love to God and love to man; for "love is the fulfilling of the Law." And now he brings the principle just stated to a practical test, and puts the young ruler to the proof. "One thing thou lackest" - one thing, without which no obedience can be really beautiful before men or truly acceptable to God; one thing, without which obedience is neither real nor reliable, neither permanent nor performed consistently and efficiently; one thing, without which obedience is merely mechanical, and nothing more than a whitening of the outside of the sepulcher, while the inside is dead men's bones and all uncleanness. That one thing was the principle of love, which is the moving spring of all gospel obedience. This principle of love is the great impulse to all genuine morality; it is the essential element in all holiness. By this principle our Lord tested the young ruler, and in this practical way, - You profess entire obedience to God's Law; now, the sum and substance of that law is love - love to God and love to man, and this love must be supreme. You must love the Lord your God with all your mind, and soul, and strength, and heart; and your fellow-man as yourself. Go, then, and act out that great principle by selling all that you have, and distributing it to relieve the necessities of your poorer brethren of mankind, and to maintain and promote the service of God. The test was found too severe for the young man's morality; his love was more of outward observance than of spiritual obedience, more of profession than of practice, more of the lip than of the life. He was not prepared to subordinate all, to surrender all, to sacrifice all, and to suffer all, if necessary, in fulfillment of that Law, the whole of which is contained in that one word "love." This one thing he lacked; weighed in the balance, he was found wanting. He needed another to fulfill the Law in his stead; he required a better righteousness than his own.


1. In relation to the irreligious. Men may have fame and fortune; they may have intellectual endowments and worldly wealth; they may have every earthly comfort and convenience; they may have kind friends, happy homes, and pleasant family relations; they may have all that heart can wish. But, if they want religion, then they lack the one thing that can make men truly prosperous - blessed in time and happy through eternity.

2. With respect to the amiable, and persons possessing certain good qualities. Persons may be amiable; they may be frank and affable and obliging; they may be generous and liberal, hospitable and kindhearted; they may be upright in their dealings, and honorable in all the business of life; they may have strong natural affection in their various relationships, as sons or husbands or parents; - they may be all this, and have all these good natural qualities, without either possessing or professing religion. We may admire and even love them for their amiability and other natural excellenecs, for men differ widely by nature as well as by grace; but, wanting religion, one thing they lack, and that one thing is the one thing needful.

3. In regard to professors of religion. Men may profess themselves to be on the Lord's side; they may be hearers and readers and students of God's Word; they may by study make themselves acquainted with its precious truths - its doctrines and duties, its precepts and promises, its entreaties and exhortations, its warnings and reproofs; they may have respect for the Scriptures, for the sabbath, for the sanctuary, and its services; they may unite with God's people in prayer, in praise, in the sacraments, and in other exercises of religion; - and after all this, and notwithstanding all this, their heart may not be right toward God; one thing they lack, and, continuing to lack it, they must perish in the end. Oh, how dreadful to think of such having their lot at last with the openly irreligious, the profligate, and the profane! And how such will gloat over those professors of religion when they descend to the abode of the lost, and exultingly say, "Are you also become as we? Are you become like unto us?" You, who professed religion, who offered prayers, and sang praises, and piqued yourselves on your superiority to profligates like us; you, who did so much and went so far, - are you become cur comrades in misery, our companions in distress? Oh, we may imagine the fiendish glee with which false or fallen professors shall be jeered, when they sink down into partnership with the utterly abandoned in the place of destruction and the region of despair!

4. With reference to ourselves, and to avoid self-deception. The young ruler was practising self-deception, without knowing it. He did not know his deficiency till the Savior brought him to the severe practical proof before us. Here is a salutary lesson and a solemn warning to beware of deception in our estimate of ourselves. We too, even we, may be resting on a morality that is hollow and defective; we may fancy ourselves religious, while our heart is not right toward God, and has no real love to man. We may mistake enthusiasm, or the excitement of the occasion, or the power of sympathy, especially in times of revival, for love to Christ and his cause. We may enrol our names among the followers of the Lamb, and profess our readiness to follow him whithersoever he leadeth, through evil report and good report; we may worship with a degree of devoutness in the sanctuary, partake of the sacraments, wear the so-called "livery of religion," and practice strict outward morality. All this is right and proper, all this we should do; and yet, notwithstanding all this, we may not possess supreme love of the Savior; and so this one thing we lack, and thus are destitute of the chief thing, the main thing, the one thing most essentially needful, and absolutely indispensable to our present and everlasting well-being.

5. How we are undeceived. We may be ignorant of our deficiency till the Savior calls us to self-renunciation in some form or other; till he summons us to surrender some besetting sin or mortify some beloved lust - to cut off a right hand or a right foot or pluck out a right eye; to take up our cross in some way and follow him. He may require us to contribute more liberally to the claims of his religion, to give more largely to his cause, to work more vigorously as well as pray more earnestly for the extension of his kingdom; or, it may be, he demands a more unreserved consecration of our time, or talents, or influence, or example, or eloquence, or wealth, or whatever else we have to give and can give. Our refusal or reluctance to comply in any of the cases supposed, proves that one thing we lack, and the lack of it proves the entire absence or imperfection of that love which is the basis of duty and the principle of religion.

6. Evidence of our possessing that love which works by faith. If we have true love to the Lord Jesus, our surrender to his service will be complete; we shall give on all proper occasions and in due proportion to his cause; we shall, in a word, do and dare, and even die, if needs be, for his sake. We shall put in practice that principle of self-sacrificing love which our Lord requires, and which is ready to give all and do all and suffer all for him who loved us and gave himself for us. Wherever there is real affection, whether it be to friend or fellow-man or fatherland, that affection may be modified by national character or natural temperament, but it will be sure to manifest itself in some shape and develop itself in some way; it will unfetter the feet, it will untie the hands and set them to work, it will give utterance to the tongue, and impart activity to the life. We find an illustration of this in that remarkable military enterprise, "The Retreat of the Ten Thousand Greeks" out of the heart of the Persian empire. They had crossed deep rivers and climbed high mountains; they had overcome difficulties almost incredible, and encountered dangers of every kind; they made good their retreat in the face and in spite of all the artifice and arms of Persia. At length they reached the summit of a hill called Theches (now Tekeh), between Erzeroum and Trebisond; and when, from the top of that high hill, those gallant Greeks, many of whom were islanders and all of them accustomed to the sea, descried in the distance the dark waters of the Euxine, they raised a loud and long-continued cheer. "The sea! the sea!" was the shout of every tongue. The sea reminded them of their native waters, and of their island homes; and the tide of affection rose in their bosoms, high as the laughing tides that "lave those Edens of the Eastern wave." So, wherever true affection exists, it needs but the occasion to call it forth - something to move the memory, and it vents itself spontaneously with overflowing fullness. - J.J.G.

Parallel Verses
KJV: And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?

WEB: As he was going out into the way, one ran to him, knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?"

The Rich Young Ruler
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