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The Danger of Goodness

• Greg Boyd

Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man raises the question of what a person must do to get into heaven. Is it good deeds? Is selling our possessions and giving to the poor enough? No, it is embracing the love relationship with God that is extended to us through Christ.

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This is a very odd episode manifesting one of the most profound, counter- intuitive, counter-cultural, confrontational aspects of the Kingdom. Here’s what makes it an odd event:

First, Jesus responds in an odd way: “Why call me “good”? Why would Jesus respond that way? Is this a new rule: never call anyone or anything good except God? That seems ridiculous. However, Jesus himself often refers to things and people as “good.” (See Matt 5:44-45).

Second, Jesus says, “You know the commandments…” Why would Jesus reply that way? It seems like he’s suggesting that you can enter the Kingdom by simply keeping his commandments: check off the list of good deeds and you’re in. This seems odd to be coming out of the mouth of Jesus.

Third, here’s how the rich young ruler responds: “All these I have kept…” Basically he is saying, “Yep, I’ve checked off the good deed check list, anything else?” So Jesus adds, “You still lack one thing… sell all and give to the poor.” At first look, this sounds like Jesus saying, “You missed one item on the good deeds check list.” So is Jesus saying that entering the Kingdom is a matter of checking off the good deeds checklist after all? What about parable of tax collector (Luke 18:9-14)? He didn’t check off anything; he wouldn’t even look up to heaven.

So what is Jesus up to in this encounter? Jesus is trying to jar this man’s paradigm of what the Kingdom is all about. The man is viewing Jesus and the Kingdom out of what we might call a “Goodness Paradigm”. In essence, he’s saying to Jesus: “I’m a good judge of goodness, and Jesus, I think YOU are good. What I’m wondering is, what’s your view of all the good things I need to do to achieve the good prize of heaven?” He has an achievement view of the Kingdom. This goodness paradigm is based on a legal transaction relationship with God. If a person is good enough, then they are declared in. If not, then they are out.

What Jesus is doing with this ruler is blowing the goodness paradigm of the kingdom sky high. He’s saying, “You think I’m “good”? And you think doing good things will get you into the Kingdom? Well, if you want to play THAT game, here’s one good thing you lack: all those riches, mansion, carriage, fine meals, servants…LOSE ’em and follow me.” Jesus isn’t giving the ultimate rule of the goodness check list. He’s not saying this man’s wealth is intrinsically evil. He’s rather trying to JAR this man out of his goodness paradigm.

The Kingdom is not about the goodness you think and do. It’s about who you submit to, who your life is orientated around. It is not about a legal transaction where God is the judge and we are the frightened defendants. It is about a marriage based on a love relationship. Jesus was calling the rich ruler to shake up his paradigm and enter this marriage relationship, to leave the things of the world and to cleave to God.

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Topics: Covenant, Heaven, Kingdom of God


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Focus Scripture:

  • Luke 18:18-23

    A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

    “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.' [a]"

    “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

    When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “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."

    When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.

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