In Matthew 19:17-20 is a dialogue between Jesus and rich man. The rich man asks Jesus what good deed he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Remarkable, Jesus tells the rich man to “keep the commandments” (19:17-20).
Jesus first wonders why he would ask Jesus what is good (or not). In Mark 10:18 Jesus’s response is slightly different, “why do you call me good?” It is possible someone misunderstand this as Jesus denying that he is good. Matthew clarifies, the man is asking what sort of thing he must do to inherit eternal life.
The man may be asking about what things qualify as good deeds which merit salvation, what do I have to heaven? The problem is this is more of a Christian, post-reformation question, “what must I do to be saved from hell”? A Jewish person would consider themselves part of the people of God because they were Jewish, God has chosen Israel as his people and his people keep the Law because that is what he wants them to do.
The response might be more like, “you are not one of my disciples, why would you care what I say about the good deeds which lead to righteousness?”
Before responding, Jesus quotes the shema in verse 17, implying the man needs to do what God has already told him to do to be right with God. Deuteronomy 6:6 commands the people to not only love the Lord with all the heart, but also to do what he commands, exactly what Jesus says in the next line.
When Jesus tells him to “keep the commandments” he asks, “which ones”? Jesus then lists the sixth though ninth commandments (v. 18), the fifth commandment (honor your parents) and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). Traditionally, the first set of commandments deal with loving the Lord your God and the second set of commandments (sixth through tenth) deal with loving one’s neighbor. This reflects the two greatest commandments.
The man claims to have kept these commandments since he was born (v. 20). Is this possible? He has kept the commands, but which ones? If you narrow the commandments of the Law to just the Ten Commandments, then you might say you were righteous. He would consider the command not to murder as kept perfectly since he had not actually murdered anyone. But Jesus demanded his disciples be perfect in the Sermon on the Mount, in the context of a discussion of the sixth and seventh commandments (Matt 5:48).
There are other examples of people who claim to be innocent. Job claims to be blameless and in Tobit 3:14-15, Tobit claims to be innocent:
Tobit 3:14–15 You know, O Master, that I am innocent of any defilement with a man, and that I have not disgraced my name or the name of my father in the land of my exile.
By narrowing the commands to Micah 6:8 (love justice, do mercy and walk humbly with God), or “Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself,” then you could potentially think you were keeping “all the commands.”
His wealth may have convinced him he was keeping the law right since he was blessed by God. To be sure, the man asks if he has anything lacking. This is not a bad question; he really wants to be right with God and not overlook some act of righteousness.
This is how most people approach their commitment to God, what is the minimum I need to do to have eternal life? For modern Christians, we tend to ask, “What are the right rituals I need to perform?” or “Which are the right doctrines I need to believe?” Or maybe, “How much do I have to give in order to balance out my sin?”
Evangelicals are particularly interested in marking the boundaries of who is “in” and who is “out” based on doctrinal statements or (often unwritten) behavior codes. Real Christians, we are told, “do not do that sort of thing.”
This is what the rich man is doing. He is interested in marking out the boundaries of where eternal life begins so he can insure he has “done enough” to be on the inside, but perhaps only just enough.