Are We Really Keeping the 10 Commandments?
A Reflection on the Story of the Rich Young Man in Mark 10:17-31
Dr. Mark S. Latkovic
September 20, 2015 [Revised 10/11/15]
When the rich young man in Mark’s gospel (see 10:17-31 and the parallel in Mt. 19:16-30) asked Jesus what he had to do to attain eternal life (=salvation), our Lord responded first with a question of his own: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (10:18). Then, almost rhetorically, Jesus told his interlocutor that he knew the 10 Commandments, right? After Jesus listed some of the commandments of the second tablet, the rich young man, in turn, responded affirmatively: not only did he know them, he had kept them. If true – and we have no reason to doubt it – then the rich young man would be pretty much near perfection. How many of us can say that we have kept all of the precepts of the Decalogue – from our youth, as the rich young man claimed? Even if this man was in only his mid-20s, that’s still quite a few years of perfect living!
But Jesus was teaching the young man that the Commandments are much deeper than we suppose when we view them only on the surface or as a matter of law for law’s sake. By going further and telling him that he must sell all his possessions and only after that follow him, the Master was revealing the profound spiritual meaning of the Decalogue. He was giving us, in a way, in Mark’s gospel the same sermon that we find in the text that best embodies his person and his moral instruction: the Sermon on the Mount and its Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel (see 5-7 and the parallel in Lk. 6). As in his great Sermon, Jesus was teaching that not only are actions important, but so too are attitudes.
But the rich young man wasn’t willing to do the one thing that Jesus said he was missing: give up his riches to the poor and become a poor young man. More importantly, by this refusal, he let his wealth stand in the way of a deeper conformity to the Lord: for the personal call addressed to him by Jesus was for him to become a disciple precisely by becoming poor. But maybe too he now sensed that he wasn’t so perfect after all, that he hadn’t really observed all of the Commandments after having heard Jesus’ call that day – or rather had not observed them according to their true meaning and with the right intention of love for God and neighbor. This was the very intention Jesus himself had manifested when the evangelist tells us that Jesus had looked at the rich young man and “loved him” (Mk. 10:21).
If the 5th Commandment is more than refraining from murder, but also not getting unjustifiably angry, how many of us can say we have “kept” this commandment? If the 6th Commandment is more than not committing adultery in deed, but also not looking lustfully at another (adultery of the heart), how many of us can say we have “kept” this commandment? If the 7th Commandment is more than not stealing, but also not coveting our neighbor’s goods (cf. 10th Commandment), how many of us can say we have “kept” this commandment? Are we not then all guilty at times of breaking the Commandments?
The sacred author records the young man going away “sad.” But he wasn’t the only one despondent. Even the disciples – who themselves had given up everything to follow Jesus – were surprised at how wealth could be such a barrier to the Kingdom of God (They knew it was hard for men to give up!). In teaching them that God’s grace makes it possible to embrace evangelical poverty (and anything else that is good or to avoid anything that is bad), he was reminding his disciples that even the choice to give everything up for his sake is God’s doing, not theirs. “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.” (10:27)