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03.04.12 Fruit of the Spirit—Goodness, Luke 18:18-27

by on March 6, 2012

A rich man addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher,” to which Jesus responds, “No one is good but God alone.” Really? Isn’t Jesus good? Aren’t there other good people? What hope is can there be for our own growth in goodness if what Jesus says is true?

Summary Points

  • The goodness of Jesus and others
  • Understanding Jesus’ statement
  • Why our goodness matters
  • What “eternal life” is and its relationship to goodness

Despite what Jesus says in today’s passage, the writers of the New Testament believed and taught that Jesus too, and not just God alone, was good. Paul refers to Jesus as one “who had no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). First Peter, applying the words of Isaiah to Jesus, reports that “he committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:22). The book of Hebrews presents Jesus as our high priest who is, “holy, blameless, and undefiled” (Hebrews 7:26).

We’re not alone if we struggle with the idea that God alone is good if it means taking Jesus out of the equation. When the Gospel of Matthew recounts this episode, he changes the question. The rich man doesn’t address Jesus as good, but asks, “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds similarly as in Luke, “Why do you ask me about what is good. There is one who is good.” (see Matthew 19:16-17)

And what about other people? The Bible itself, including Luke, attribute goodness to others besides God and besides Jesus. In Acts 11:24, Luke says of Barnabas that he is “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit.” In his letter to the Romans Paul expresses confidence that the non-Jews among them are “full of goodness” (Romans 15:14). Paul even instructs the Corinthians to imitate him, i.e., Paul. Likewise, the book of Hebrews exhorts its readers to follow the example of their leaders. (see 1 Corinthians 11:1; Hebrews 13:7)

Clearly people can be good, not just Jesus, and not just God. Otherwise what would be point of Paul’s telling us to bear the fruit of the Spirit which is goodness? And why would Jesus warn us against false prophets, whom he likens to bad trees which bear bad fruit, if it were not possible to find true prophets who are like good trees bearing good fruit? (see Matthew 7:17)

Given all this, what are to make of Jesus’ statement to the rich ruler that no one is good but God alone? Perhaps the best response is to see this statement as an example of Jesus’ use of hyperbole. Jesus liked to bring a point he was making into sharp focus by exaggeration. A common example is when he preaches (in Matthew 5:29-30) that we should gouge out our eye or cut off our hand if they cause us to sin. Obviously this isn’t to be taken literally, but it does make the point of how attached we can be to our sin, and how difficult it is to overcome that attachment.

So what point is Jesus trying to make by saying, in hyperbole, that none is good but God alone? Simply that all goodness originates with God. If we are to become good people, we must look not to ourselves, not to prevailing opinion, not even to Jesus or to the Bible (which Jesus quotes next), without first recognizing that goodness originates with God.

The Presbyterian Scots Confession 1560 puts it this way: “The cause of good works is not our free will, but the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ brings forth such works as God has prepared for us to walk in” (Book of Confessions 3.13). Our goodness is ordained by (finds it origin in) God, and it is God’s Spirit in Christ that makes it possible for us to be good.

Why should we be concerned with goodness? The Book of Confessions offers us instruction here also. Question 86 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks us, “Why must we do good works?” It gives a five-part answer. (1) Because we bear the image of God, (2) to show our gratitude to God, (3) to glorify God by our goodness, (4) because goodness is evidence of our having faith, (5) and because our goodness attracts others to Christ.

So the rich ruler asks about “eternal life,” and Jesus points him first to God who is the source of all goodness (who “alone is good”). But then Jesus refers him to the commandments, but not all the commandments. He leaves out the commandments dealing with our relationship with God and instead lists the commandments dealing with our relationship with one another. In other words, he leaves out the vertical ones and lists the horizontal ones.

But not all the horizontal ones. He leaves one out, and the rich ruler declares he has kept all these commandments from his youth—all but the one Jesus left out. The one Jesus left out is the commandment not to covet. So Jesus gives the rich ruler an applied version of the remaining commandment: to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow Jesus.

One of the points of this episode is the truth that we all have “one more commandment” to master in order to be perfect. God is always calling us to greater faithfulness, to more goodness, to take on the one thing missing.

Another point  is that “eternal life” isn’t an afterlife we inherit when we die. Eternal life is live in the Kingdom of God, life lived by Kingdom principles—life we can live now in conformity to the social, horizontal commandments. Eternal life is the faithful life. It is the life of goodness.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  • When Jesus redirects the rich ruler to look at God alone for goodness, he’s redirecting us as well. Obviously we look to Jesus for guidance, and to the Bible, as that’s what Luke is depicting in this encounter. But how willing are you to let God be the source of goodness, even if it violates our understanding of Jesus and the Bible? Are you willing to listen to Jesus’ admonition to put God first?
  • Who are some other people from the Bible, church history, your own life, or your own congregation who are good and worthy of imitation? Why are they? What can you do to begin imitating them?
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