Box Checking: Nicodemus and the Rich Young Ruler

by   |  

Two stories—one in all three synoptic Gospels, the other only in John—tell of two men of distinction, both rulers, who came to Jesus with a yearning. One had come to the Master from darkness. He had come at night. He came out of the night, but he also had night in his soul. The other came during the day. Yet within him, as we learn, it was also night. Both were drawn to Jesus by a pressing sense of their needs. Their needs turned out to be the same.

Jesus would zero in on their needs. To do so He would have to remove a dangerous error and replace it with the truth they needed. They needed first to be clear about what it was they needed and about what had brought them unwittingly to the solution of their need. Jesus brushed aside their polite words of address and went directly to the business. His opening was abrupt and concussive.

The Rulers’ Errors

Nicodemus began, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God, for no man can do these miracles that thou doest except God be with him” (John 3:2). Jesus responded as if He hadn’t heard him. His visitor needed to die. He needed to die and be reborn. Only by another birth could he ever see the kingdom of God. That was the need Nicodemus brought with him to the Lord that evening. He had come to learn from the Master (Master here means teacher). He was not prepared for the shock and awe.

The Young Ruler didn’t get even that far. Jesus cut him off after his first word. He corrected him as He had Nicodemus at the threshold of what he had made ready to say.

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? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me Good? There is none good but God” (Mark 10:17–18).

Was Jesus denying His deity? Of course not. He was doing two things. The Ruler does not recognize whom he is addressing and therefore bungles the protocol. Ordinarily a petitioner in the presence of royalty has been prepped on how to speak. He like Nicodemus did not understand he had come to more than an honored teacher. He was facing a King.

The Ruler’s petition and subsequent behavior also exhibit another error that springs from the previous one. He does not recognize the truth that, as Paul wrote citing the Old Testament, “There is none righteous, no not one.” What the Ruler intended as a gracious start was profoundly wrong. “If I’m not God, I’m not good,” Jesus would have him understand.

The Rulers’ Sincerity

I’m not so sure the two visitors were as certain of their religious status as they have sometimes been thought to have been. Why would a Pharisee come to learn from a miracle-working Rabbi without elite credentials? What might have prompted a wealthy young ruler (religious? civic?) to run to the “Good Master” and implore, kneeling, how he could gain everlasting life? He had set aside his reputation to get relief on this most troubling of questions. Both had lowered themselves, one literally so, out of respect for the One who could supply them what they needed to know.

Of the Ruler we are told that Jesus loved him (Mark 10:21). If we are like our Master we will love him too. To care about this winsome young man is important to our sense of what is about to happen and what happens afterward. Let’s set Nicodemus aside for now and get on with the Young Ruler’s story.

The Ruler’s List

The Ruler needed to become like the followers of the Master. He had jumped that requirement. It was not on his list. So Jesus would show him his list was insufficient. Jesus did not go at his need directly as he had with Nicodemus but came at it in a roundabout way. He was going to let the Ruler self-identify. Isn’t that the hardest thing for an unbeliever or even a stubborn believer to do? Self-recognition is the start of spiritual change. Jesus would engage him in what I’m going to call box checking.

We moderns know a lot about box checking. There is no end it seems of questions to be answered on forms, boxes to be checked yes or no. Medical forms, company reports, job applications, performance reviews at all levels—all are to be expected in the work world where so much depends on data-based decision making. And then there is that stressful box checking at the turn of the year when wage earners like me compare where they were a year ago with where they are now and with where they would like to be.

The village Rabbi took the Ruler to what was then and is yet the best-known passage in the Mosaic Law. The assured young man, wealthy in goods and good deeds, was on his home ground. If he had undergone rabbinic training he could well have recited by rote the entire Pentateuch. Certainly he would have had drilled into his mind the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, of Exodus 20. He would also have known Leviticus 19:17–18, the two Commandments said by Jesus to sum up the Law.

Jesus’ tactic with the Ruler is fascinating. Whereas He instructed Nicodemus by straightforward lecture, he taught the Ruler through engaged learning. The Ruler framed his question about the afterlife in terms of moral status. What must I do, he asked, to inherit eternal life? Jesus does not directly challenge the Ruler’s error. He accommodates it in order to correct it.

If thou will enter into life, keep the commandments.

The Ruler’s responses have a naïve charm.

He saith unto him, Which?

Notice that Jesus does not ridicule him. He gives him boxes to check.

Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honor thy father and thy mother, and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. (19:17–19)

The Ruler replies with the by now expected confidence.

All these things have I kept from my youth up. What lack I yet? (19:20)

The Ruler’s Take Home Assignment

Again Jesus does not argue with him. In response to the Ruler’s inquiry about what may remain yet to do, Jesus gives him something to do that will answer his question.

If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me (19:21).

He might have known where Jesus was taking him. Jesus had passed over the first four commandments of the Law about man’s relation to God. He had taken him through the last six commandments of the Second Table about the duties of man to man. Or had He? Where in Jesus’ list was that last of the six, and of the ten, against coveting?

It was a canny omission by the Master Teacher. The Ruler had a blind spot in what had been drilled into his mind from his youth. “Sell all your goods, and give to the poor, and come, follow Me.” Jesus had let him answer his own question. He had let him self-indict.

The Ruler went away sorrowing. He hadn’t counted the cost. He wasn’t willing to leave all and follow Christ.

The Greatest Surprise

But we aren’t through with surprises in this story. Colossians 3:5, listing sins we are to mortify, includes “covetousness, which is idolatry.” If covetousness is to be considered idolatry, we have circled back to the First Table of the Law which prohibits false worship. The last command of the six, and of the ten, attaches with the first.

Isn’t it intriguing how Jesus’ tactics with the Ruler and the Pharisee were very much the same? Having dismissed their opening words, He sprung from them, from their very words, what each needed to hear. Isn’t it just like God to turn our sincere blunderings to serve His purposes and to minister to our good as well? The young Ruler got a tutorial in the worth of good works for salvation. “There is none good but God.” Nicodemus learned from the miracle worker about the greatest of miracles, the New Birth. The rabbi alone of the two rulers checked that box most important of all.


Dr. Ron Horton was a BJU faculty member for over 58 years. After serving as the chair of the Division of English for more than 30 years, Dr. Horton taught four upper-level philosophy courses.