Question: From the Gospel today why does Jesus appear to deny His divinity? “Why do you call me good… No-one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:17-27).
Answer: Thank you very much for your question. This is an fundamental question which puzzles all who find passages from the Gospel where Jesus tries to keep quiet about his divinity. It became even a “locus theologicus” and has a name: “the Messianic secret”.
In the Gospel, Jesus commands silence in many instances. An example is Mark 8:29–30: “And he asked them, But who say ye that I am? Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ. And he charged them that they should tell no man of him.” Jesus also issues commands of silence after miracles and healings, e.g. in Mark 1:43–45 in the cleansing of a leper: “After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.'” We could include parables and secrets of the Kingdom of God as in Mark 4:11: “And he said unto them, Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables.”
First there is a difference between denying and not saying or hiding. He is not denying (that would be lying) but he is acting progressively (pedagogically). Jesus’ intention is pedagogical. In order to understand how God worked in the History of our Salvation (think of the Old Testament) and in order to understand how Jesus worked we should think of an aspect that Blessed John Henry Newman deepened and presented to us: “development” and “envelopment” as a Divine pedagogy. God never starts by saying things directly, and clearly, because we don’t have the capacity to receive things as holy as they are. So he starts by enveloping himself and the deeper truths about him. Exactly like we do with Children: we tell them things in a certain way when they are young and the more they grow, the more they are capable of understanding and bearing what we have to say, so we open wider the veil, increase information, until they are capable of handling the naked reality/truth (the process of development).
Jesus’ divinity is not a light matter to be played with or a subject of debate or arguments. It is the most sacred part of God himself and it is not offered up to be ridiculed. It should be handled with great care and respect. It should be handled with purity.
For the pure and the prepared, God reveals Himself as he is. But in order to reach that purity and holiness, we need to be purified through a journey of growth.
This is why saint John built his Gospel as a journey of purification through the 6 signs he offers us (chapters 1 to 11), until we reach the Cross (18-19), and are enable to “enter” into Jesus’ Opened Side.
God doesn’t give his pearls to the swine. And he advises us not to do so.
Objection: Should we consider a beginner as a “swine”, an impure person to whom we should hide the knowledge that Jesus is God and the necessity to believe in that from day one ?
Answer: Not really, because experiencing his divinity is the first goal in spiritual life and one needs to know it from day one, even if it is not experienced yet. One embarks in the journey. It is more for people who are not opened to receive Faith. (Faith is a Grace)
If we read carefully saint John’s Gospel we will notice various aspects arround Jesus’ Divinity.
– First we can see that that there are two ways to reach the Discovery of Jesus’s divinity: the first way is to start through baptism by the mere initial baptismal belief (the Creed), and, at the end of the Journey, to reach Jesus divinity, by becoming united to him. Saint John of the Cross describes the grace of the Spiritual Engagement as a powerful glimpse of Jesus’ divinity. St Theresa of Avila says that in the 7th Mansion, we see what we believed in while within the previous mansions…
The Gospel of St John starts with one of the First apostles’ affirmation: Rabbi you are the Son of God (John 1:50-51), and finishes with that amazing affirmation of St Thomas who was allowed into Jesus’ side: “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
– Second: one can see throughout St John’s Gospel that on the journey of purification (the 6 signs), at each stage people respond to Jesus in different ways. You have the ones who believe, but you have as well the ones who don’t, who react very humanly, who struggle. This is intentional in John’s mind: he shows the journey of purification, the struggles, the obstacles to reach that experience of Jesus’ Divinity that he calls: Faith. Faith for him is entering in Jesus, being transformed in Him, and therefore being able to receive the Holy Spirit, God’s Life (see John 20:30-31).
We see then the necessity of a journey of purification. We can translate these following words of Jesus “blessed the pure, they will see God” (Mt 5) into a more precise statement: “Blessed whoever will get his heart purified because he/she will See God.” or “your duty is to become purified in order to see God”. This is why the Masters of Spiritual life from the very beginning of their teaching stated that the goal of the monk is to realise his purification (see Conferences, John Cassian). Let us finally remember as well that the journey of transformation/purification makes us similar to God, to Jesus. This is why and how we will be able to see him “as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Conclusion: we can’t say that the Lord denies his own divinity, but he uses the divine pedagogy, i.e. he works progressively with whoever is ready and to the others, he speaks in symbols (parables), fulfilling the golden rule: not to give pearls to the swine.
In that passage mentioned in your question, Jesus starts with the understanding of God as he appears in God’s Revelation to Moses. Notice that Jesus’ answer will proceed progressively: he will question him about his observation of Moses’ Law first. Only after his positive answer will he dare add perfection, the Perfection he is bringing to the Law. He acted pedagogically.