There is tension in the Bible. Many a misunderstanding is found here. I received a box of books last week addressed to the chaplain of the Youth Correction Center. The author wanted me to make these books available to the students. Well, I’m going to do some reading before I just hand out random things sent to me. One of the premises of the book is that most Christians have it wrong. Yeah, I love it when people start out that way. Look at me everyone, out of all the Christians in the world, I’m the one who is right! And what are they wrong about? Well, their lists of things you have to do to be right with God. Paul’s letter to the Romans was quoted a lot here. And the truth is that Romans does emphasize that we are saved by faith. But there is this other thread in the letter that often gets overlooked. Paul does himself a lot of talking about obedience. Here’s the thing; faith and obedience dance together so closely that one without the other is not even possible. If you have faith in God it will shape your actions. Those actions do not save you. That is true. But grace without those actions is what Bonhoeffer called a cheap grace; worthless and ineffective. Tension. We are pulled here. In the midst of this tension, what makes a person a good person?
Luke 18:18-23 is Jesus’ encounter with a rich ruler. The words “certain ruler” are vague. Could be any sort of leader. All that we really need to know is that this man was in a position of power and influence and that he came to Jesus saying “good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” It is the same question posed by the lawyer in chapter ten, although my guess is that the attitude between the two gentlemen was vastly different. The lawyer came with a defiant, finding fault, questioning. This ruler seems to be genuinely seeking Jesus’ advice. The question is interesting. The word “inherit” can mean receive, gain possession of. But it usually has the meaning of gaining possession of an inheritance. Well, you don’t really do anything to inherit, do you? Somebody dies and because you are an heir, boom!, you receive. There are other words he could have used that would have meant simply “obtain, acquire, receive.”
And Jesus’ response is interesting as well; “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” As you can well imagine, this response has caused a lot of discussion. Is it wrong to call a person good? Some even suggest that Jesus was stating that he is not without sin. Well, that flies in the face of all that we believe (cf. Romans 5:19; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:14-15). Not to mention that Jesus applies the term to men (cf. Matthew 5:45; Luke 6:45). The question of this rich ruler was basically, “good teacher, how can I be good enough to inherit eternal life.” Jesus’ response points the way. Only God is good. It is the Psalmist who cried out “I have no good besides you!” to Yahweh in Psalm 16:2. Whatever good we have; whatever good we do; that good comes from God. Jesus is not disclaiming good. He is instead pointing to the source of good.
Then Jesus quotes five of the Ten Commandments. Why these five? It seems likely that these five are about our relationship to mankind. He leaves out “you shall not covet” because it is not a discernable action. Everything else is. The ruler claims that he has kept all of this from his youth up. There is no reason to doubt his claim. He was a devout Jewish leader of some kind. But did he keep these commands because he was good; because the goodness of God engulfed him? Jesus then tells him that he lacks one thing. The ruler is told to sell everything and distribute his wealth among the poor. If he does this he is promised treasures in heaven. And then he is told to follow Jesus. The order is important. This is not Jesus negating the importance of the Old Law. Giving to the poor was very much an Old Law thing. But where is your heart? Who are you relying on for your status of goodness? If you lay aside the possessions and trust in God, your treasures will be out of this world. And then, only then, can you follow Jesus. The man went away extremely grieved because he was extremely wealthy. And doesn’t that break your heart? His love of God should have led to a love for people. The goodness of God should have shaped his heart.
If you trust in God, you will obey. Faith and action dance. Don’t try to separate them apart from each other. Yes, there is tension here; tension we will forever grapple with. I am not saved by being good, but a Good God transforms me into a good person doing good works because of a good love for my Good God and God’s good people. All is good, but nothing in me apart from God is good. Good grief! The rich ruler went away carrying the burden of bad grief; grief that refuses to trust a Good God. Don’t do that!