In Jesus’ well-known encounter with the rich young ruler, recounted in the Synoptic Gospels, many commentators, particularly among Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses, allege that Jesus denies his own deity:
“17 As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” 21 Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 22 But at these words [g]he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property
23 And Jesus, looking around, *said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus *answered again and *said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.” 26 They were even more astonished and said to Him, “[h]Then who can be saved?” 27 Looking at them, Jesus *said, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”” (Mk. 10:17-27, cf. Matt. 19:16-26; Lk. 18:18-23)
This interpretation is both simplistic and incorrect. There are several socio-cultural and theological factors at work in the text which must be understood in order to understand this dialogue in general, and Jesus’ apparently harsh reproof, in particular. Matt Slick summarizes the standard, Trinitarian response to the allegation that Jesus is denying his deity here:
1) “Jesus is essentially saying to the ruler, “Do you know what you are implying?
You say I am good;
2) but only God is good;
3) therefore, you realize that you are identifying me with God?”
Note that the conclusion of the matter is left purely implicit. Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses assume that this implicit conclusion is “therefore, I cannot be God,” when in reality, it is “do you realize that you are identifying me with God?” Jesus parries the man’s insincere remark, and redirects the conversation to the real issue, which is the man’s insincere heart, by asking him about his own righteousness, all while without even actually repudiating his deity, as Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses allege he is doing.
Slick notes that only God is seen as being pre-eminently or categorically good in Jewish culture, and so this compliment is one that ought to have been reserved solely for God. Jesus knows that this man is convinced, not that Jesus is truly the Messiah, but that he himself is righteous because of his own deeds. If the man were a true convert, he would responded to Jesus’ holiness the way Peter (Lk. 5:8) or the tax collector (Lk. 18:9-14) did (to say nothing of Isaiah’s response to seeing Jesus in chapter 6 of his prophetic book (cf. Jhn. 12:40-41)): by confessing his own unworthiness rather than confessing his own worthiness.
In any case, Jesus directs the attention away from himself, averting the man’s supposed attempt at flattery, and directs it towards the man’s own attitude towards himself, his own righteousness, and his relation to God. Unlike Peter, Isaiah, the tax collector, and others, who confess their own unworthiness in the presence of God, this man proudly affirms that he has kept the commandments since his youth. Jesus, who has already delivered the Sermon on the Mount, according to which surface observation of the commandments is irrelevant when the heart is continually transgressing all of them, could have easily said “depart from me, you worker of lawlessness,” as he doubtless will say to many who come to him on Judgment Day saying “have I not cast out devils in your name and performed many miracles in your name?” (Matt. 7:21-23) or, as the rich young ruler said, “have I not abstained from adultery and murder and theft?” Instead, Jesus, by way of concession, as though he had indeed kept these other commandments, points out to the ruler that the “one thing” that he lacked as idolatrous attachments to his wealth and possessions, to which he had been in habitual bondage, and which he would not relinquish in order to obtain eternal life.
The rich young ruler did well to affirm the essential and categorical goodness of Jesus, but he made the mistake of affirming the same of himself, when he was instead in need of a righteousness not of his own, but imputed to the sinner through faith, as the tax collector knew well. This is not all that is going on in the text, however. The rich young ruler is not only not sincere in his affirmation of Jesus’ goodness, but intends to antagonize him. As Malina and Rohrbaugh point out in their Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, in an agonistic honor/shame culture such as that of ancient Palestine, such a compliment is a challenge to Jesus and an attempt to put him on the spot, as Matt Slick explains. The ruler was implicitly trying to accuse Jesus of attempting to elevate himself over others, and so this would have been a challenge to the honor of others. Jesus abstains from arousing the envy of others by repudiating the “compliment” by redirecting it, without actually negating it.
But why would Jesus want to abstain from fully disclosing his identity at this point? Perhaps most obviously, Jesus repeatedly warns his followers against exposing the full import of his identity, particularly prior to his resurrection (Mk. 1:44; Matt. 9:30; 12:16; 16:20; 17:9, etc.). Next, the relation of the concept of envy in the ancient world at this time must be understood, particularly within the context of the agonistic honor/shame culture mentioned before. This must wait, however, for part 2 of this article series.