When the family was all hanging out the other day and discussing faith and current trends in Christianity, Mom said something that made us all giggle, but I know she partly meant it. “Joshy is my favorite theologian”
Being that he’s only five, certainly there are a lot of things he doesn’t get, and yet he never fails to surprise us with all that he does get. He started grappling with the ridiculous nature of Jesus being willing to die for sinful people when he was only three.(read the story titled “DAT STUPID” near the end of the post for the reference) He knows Bible stories backwards and forwards and has a million profound questions about God and Jesus and the Bible.
I was taking him somewhere in the car last week and we got into one of those interesting conversations Josh is known for. He was talking about his imaginary friend who recently passed away. I asked him how his friend had died. “Well he was walking along and fell right into the lake of fire,” he answered with a very matter-of-fact tone.
(My mom would probably want me to interject that they don’t talk about the ‘lake of fire’ over breakfast or anything and two, that she really was mostly kidding about Josh being her hero theologian *grin*)
“Wow, how did that happen?” I finally choked out when I had given myself a moment to recover from his unexpected response.
I looked at him through the rearview mirror. His hands were folded and he was watching the fall trees go by through the window. I could see the reflection of them in his dark eyes. He was, as he explained, the very picture of thoughtfulness. “Well…(long pause)… he wasn’t very good, you know? I tried to tell him he was doing bad things, BUT he wouldn’t listen. He thought he was already good.”
We drove the rest of the way in silence. Josh continued to look out the window, presumably thinking of his long lost friend and I was driving with a million thoughts in my head.
So for the last week I have been thinking about goodness. I grew up on church phrases like “being good won’t get you to heaven” and was always left thinking, yeah, but being good matters too, right? I mean, the Church says that but then, by and large, go on to control and manage behavior like its the main focus!
For the last couple of days my mind has been running wild on a particular, unfamiliar conversation Jesus had. Well, the conversation is actually quite popular- its just the first exchange that seems largely unaddressed. Its the story of the rich, young ruler. The story is recorded in three of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) The latter two passages are identical, but Matthew’s account has a slight variation.
And behold, there came a man up to Him, saying, Teacher, what excellent and perfectly and essentially good deed must I do to possess eternal life?
And He said to him, Why do you ask Me about the perfectly and essentially good? There is only One Who is good [perfectly and essentially]–God. If you would enter into the Life, you must continually keep the commandments. [Matthew 19:16 &17, Amplified Bible]
The rest of the story follows that the man asks which commandments, and Jesus lists about five before the man interrupts and says, “I have already done these things since I was a child.” And Jesus tells him there is only one thing left to do, which is to sell all of his possessions, and come follow Jesus. The discussion as he the rich man leaves turns to wealth and how it makes following Jesus hard.
I love the story in its entirety but have been stuck on those first few lines lately. Maybe my questions seem obvious, but they are there none the less. The man wants to know what good thing he must do to have eternal life and Jesus responds by saying there is only One who is good. And then he goes on to tell the man to follow the ten commandments if eternal life is what he’s after…
I am left scratching my head a little… so is Jesus saying that there is no good deed? and when he tells the man to “keep the commandments” is He reinforcing the idea that following the rules results in going to heaven?
The way Mark penned the story shed a little light on the conversation for me.
And as He was setting out on His journey, a man ran up and knelt before Him and asked Him,
Teacher, [You are essentially and perfectly morally] good, what must I do to inherit eternal life [that is, to partake of eternal salvation in the Messiah’s kingdom]?
And Jesus said to him, Why do you call Me [essentially and perfectly morally] good? There is no one [essentially and perfectly morally] good–except God alone. You know the commandments.. [Mark 10 : 17 &18, Amplified Bible]
As I read this account, it occurred to me that Jesus was most likely establishing Himself as God in those first lines… there no one essentially and perfectly morally good, except for God…is that why you refer to me as “Good Teacher”? If not, then take note. There is one who is good and I am He.
Now the story is jumping off of the pages for me! I wonder why the man is asking Jesus this question anyway if he knows he has followed the commandments for the better portion of his life…? He knows he has done right and yet there is an inkling, a nagging feeling he has that makes him question whether or not he is righteous. When Jesus reminds him of the commandments, the man responds “but I have already lived up to these.” I could see him standing there, baffled that answer is not something profound, but what he already knows… what he already has done. What, then, is missing?
Jesus has him right where He wants him now. “You lack one thing; go and sell all you have and give [the money] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come [and] accompany Me [walking the same road that I walk].” Jesus tells him that although he has followed the letter of the law, the Fulfillment has now come! Jesus wants him not to just do what was commanded, but to lay everything else aside that had his heart in order to accompany Jesus.
Although the conversation becomes about money, I don’t think that was the point. It seems to me that Jesus is saying that following the commandments is not sufficient if you don’t grasp the spirit of what was commanded. Unless your die to yourself and your things and your wants and walk the road Jesus walks, following the rules will either make you a task master (think: Pharisee) or someone who lives with the ache that something is missing (like this man). There is no good thing apart from the Good One.
The same word for “good” used in this passage is used 20-30 times in the New Testament in conjunction with things we are to do or as a word describing believer or God Himself. So certainly, there are good deeds, but unless they flow from a connectedness to God they are nullified. There is no good thing done apart from God. How could there be? He is the source of goodness. I believe Jesus was establishing that very fact in this oft-quoted story. I am God and I alone in myself am good. Unless you are willing to leave all other loves to walk with me, even following the rules precisely will not produce goodness.
It makes me think of Jesus’ story about the vine and the branches: “I am the Vine; you are the branches. Whoever lives in Me and I in him bears much (abundant) fruit. However, apart from Me [cut off from vital union with Me] you can do nothing” [John 15:5, Amplified Bible]
The writer of Galations goes on to say, “But the fruit of the [Holy] Spirit [the work which His presence within accomplishes] is… goodness (benevolence)..”
This morning it feels alive and like a vital reminder to me… apart of from the working of the Spirit in my life, which comes from being grafted into that Vine, I am missing the spirit of the law and my “good” deeds are really not good. And don’t I know it?
When I am acting on my own behalf to do something kind, don’t I find myself waiting for a pat on the back or a word of recognition? When I tithe or love when hate would be easier on my own strength, doesn’t it quickly become pride? When I do something right for myself and someone else out does me, don’t I turn green with envy? And yet, when the Spirit of God moves on my heart and act in obedience, I don’t find myself living by comparisons or waiting to be thanked.
Jesus said we’d be known by our fruit and I want to be known by real goodness, flowing from the true Source of All Good, and not the pettiness of following the rules as if the Christian life were nothing more than a long checklist of do’s and don’ts in some vain attempt to avoid hell.