For Goodness’ Sake!

5-9 So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others. With these qualities active and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus. Without these qualities you can’t see what’s right before you, oblivious that your old sinful life has been wiped off the books.

2 Peter 1:5-9 (The Message)
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What does it mean to be “good?” This is a question that Jesus posed to the Rich Young Ruler in Luke 18:

18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 

Luke 18:18-19 (NIV)
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Jesus went on to list several Biblical commandments– you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, etc.., but even when the young man answers with confidence that he has kept all these commandments, Jesus says, “you still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven. Then come, follow me.” (v. 22)

Civil Rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gesturing during sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Photo by Donald Uhrbrock//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Being “good” is not a matter of avoiding evil. It is more than being “correct” in our principles, and upright in our actions. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous address in 1963 said that he dreamed of a day when his children… would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the “content of their character.” Character, and more specifically the “good character” mentioned by Peter in the above passage, includes thoughts, principles, actions, and habits by which we are judged. I may never commit murder in the literal sense, but I will be judged wanting in character if my words and actions are vicious, snide, malicious, sarcastic, and brutal. I may never be convicted of theft, but I may be judged harshly for being ungenerous or miserly toward those in need. Dr. King wanted his children to be judged–positively–for their character, not for something as superficial and arbitrary as skin color, nor for whatever they hadn’t done.

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The young ruler in Luke’s story, not willing to give away his possessions, went away disappointed. But he missed the more important calling– “Then come, follow me.” Jesus wasn’t being self-effacing when He asked, “Why do you call me good?” Far from it! Jesus WAS good– He was (and is) the embodiment of Goodness! It is not through ritualistically following the commandments that anyone becomes “good.” It isn’t even in the self-sacrificing act of giving away one’s possessions. It is in the humble act of following the Master! To follow Christ is to step out in faith, and to walk in goodness.

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Peter makes the natural connection that James also makes in his epistle– that Faith, while fundamental, must build good character through our actions, words, and habits. Faith, without works, is dead. (James 2:14-26) So the next building block is developing a good (or Godly) character. Our lives should reflect the Goodness of Christ. We won’t be perfect. But we will be given strength and guidance by the Holy Spirit to walk in Goodness. And as we walk, we will build on that foundation with the next step…Spiritual Understanding. (More about that next time.)

Today, I pray that God will show me how, and His Spirit empower me, to develop in goodness; that I would become more like the “Good Teacher” who is also my savior and Lord. For Goodness’ Sake!

“What Must I Do?”

18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” 

Luke 18:18-27 ESV via biblegateway.com

I love that Jesus didn’t just give pithy answers to questions, but often went in roundabout ways to explore the motives behind them. I also love how He would use others’ questions, mixed with parables, metaphors, or other figurative language to stimulate further thought. And His parables and word pictures, while short and simple, have layers of meaning that cause us to ponder deeper issues.

The “Rich Young Ruler” in the above story came to Jesus with a question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Instead of answering the question, Jesus seems to get distracted by the young man’s greeting. “Why do you call me ‘Good?'” Did the young man really think that Jesus was better, or wiser, or more righteous than the religious leaders of the day? Or was he trying to flatter Jesus? Or did he think that Jesus would see him as an equal (or even superior) when he found out how righteous the ruler was? Jesus got to the heart of the greeting– “No one is good except God alone.” And therein lies the true answer to the ruler’s question, as well. There is nothing anyone can do to be “Good” enough to inherit eternal life.

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Jesus could have said this, but would the young ruler have accepted this answer? Probably not. His question betrays an assumption that he WAS good enough– that he had already done all that was required and that Jesus would surely be impressed and announce to the crowd that here was an example of someone who was worthy of eternal life. Instead, Jesus led the man through his pride by naming a few of the commandments– the very ones the ruler was so sure of. Indeed, this seemed to be exactly what the ruler was hoping to hear– proof that he had “passed the test.” Ironically, he was addressing Jesus as “Good teacher, ” but seemed to miss that fact that he was also addressing the only One who is truly Good! Jesus–God in the flesh — the very one whose death would guarantee that anyone would “inherit” eternal life. This young ruler doesn’t want Jesus to be his “Lord” and “Savior,” he just wants Jesus’s opinion.

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But then, Jesus pulled the rug out from under this man’s assumptions. “One thing you still lack.” One thing…I’m sure the young ruler thought it would be a fine point in the laws or traditions he know so well– some minor point that could be cleared up with a gift or a small offering. I find this a fascinating statement, because it is followed by “sell all you have and distribute to the poor…” It seems like such an oxymoronic statement. You lack one thing, therefore, you must give away all that you have. How is that possible? Because the “one thing” the rich man lacked was not an object; not something he could check off a list of “things I can do to impress the religious leaders.” This man lacked humility; he lacked a self-awareness of his own need. And he lacked the understanding of what it means to “inherit” eternal life. No one “earns” an inheritance. Even someone who is rewarded with an inheritance must trust in the goodwill of the person writing the will, and will only inherit under the terms of the will. Jesus’s “terms” were not that the man had to become destitute or spend the rest of this life as a beggar. But faced with the choice of his comfortable life in the here and now, or eternal and abundant life in heaven on God’s terms, this man chose earthly wealth and spiritual poverty.

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Almost lost at the end of Jesus’s surprising answer are the last two phrases, “and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” This man wanted eternal life as an extension of his comfortable life on earth. He did NOT want eternal life enough to sacrifice his present comforts or his preconceived notions of “goodness.” He did not want to follow Christ– he only wanted to consult with Him.

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I find it uncomfortable to hear about the young ruler’s rejection of Christ. I understand the initial shock of the disciples as Jesus uses the illustration of a camel going through the eye of a needle to compare with a “rich” person coming into the kingdom of God. Wasn’t Abraham wealthy? Wasn’t Solomon rich? What about King David? If riches make it impossible to follow Christ, who can gain eternal life? Thankfully, Jesus redirects the focus– it’s not about the riches; and it’s not about what we “do”– it is God’s “Good” pleasure to give eternal life to those who choose to “follow” Him.

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“Good Teacher and Lord, help me to remember this lesson as I come before you in prayer. You have not asked me to ‘earn’ my inheritance. It is your gift to answer my prayers as you see fit; to be the Lord of my life; to be merciful and gracious to me; to prepare a place for me to live with You for eternity. What you ask of me is that I ‘follow’ you– that I listen to your call; that I accept Your “terms” of inheritance; that I share Your Grace and Mercy with those around me.”

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