Goodness and the Heart


Today I noticed that two portions of the Word, the story of the rich young ruler and the parable of the workers, Matthew 19:16 – 30 and Matthew 20: 1 – 16 respectively, are meant to go together.  Perhaps you have had an astute pastor who has pointed that out to you along the way, but I’d never realized it.  Today I’m looking at the account of the young ruler.

The young ruler starts off by asking Jesus what good thing will earn him eternal life, but Jesus asks him,

“Why do you ask me about what is good?  There is only One who is good.” –                                                                                                                                    Matthew 19:17a

In the accounts of this story in Mark and Luke, the ruler calls Jesus “Good Teacher,” and Jesus replies to that also that only God is good.  Jesus is the Son of God, but He knows that “Ruler” isn’t going to take Him that seriously as the story unfolds.  It tells us, too, that the fruit of goodness is definitely not innately in ourselves.  It is only gained by reflecting the goodness of God.

“For the Lord is good and His love endures forever; His faithfulness continues through all generations.” – Psalm 100:5

God’s goodness is rock solid and steadfast.  Ruler is just about to start thinking that Jesus’ words are not so good.

Ruler wants to know how to be saved, and Jesus mentions several of the Ten Commandments which deal with how you treat others, and adds “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which appears later on in Leviticus.   He does not confront Ruler with the commandments dealing more with our relationship to God.  Why?  Maybe because loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength is one commandment no one could have possibly kept fully.  Maybe because Jesus knew Ruler was looking for something to do, or to avoid, and he wasn’t thinking of a deep love of God.

As it is, Ruler seems to feel assured that he has always treated others well, and tells Jesus that he has kept them all.  But there is more.  Jesus tells him that one thing is lacking.

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow Me. –                                                                                                                               Matthew 19:21

Jesus speaks to what Ruler is interested in, his unblemished record.  But to do something as difficult as leave his life as a rich man, Ruler will have to surrender his heart to God.

Jesus wants Ruler to change his ideas radically.  His earthly treasure needs to be shared, even to the point that he would be wealthy no more.  The new treasure his heart will be set upon will be in heaven.  What he can see and hold here, and the security and enjoyment it brings, will go for good.  What kind of treasure awaits him in heaven?  He will have to trust that Jesus, as the Son of God, knows about that.

Moreover, I think the challenge Jesus sets before Ruler gives us a further clue about goodness.  God is good, not just nice.  Reflecting God’s goodness is not a show of good manners.  Ruler has controlled his behavior toward others, but it takes a complete change of heart and a trust in the goodness and protection of God to give away his possessions to the point that he gives away his way of life.

In Ruler’s case this involves money and a privileged lifestyle.  But the “riches” that hold us back may be our families, our relationships, our physical beauty or strength, our standing in our community, our advanced education.  Anything that makes us feel superior and comfortable could be our riches.  Jesus could be calling us today to put it at His feet, or if applicable, use our talents for those who have not, instead of building up ourselves.

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. – Matthew 19:22

This sad result is the reason I wondered at the beginning if Ruler understood that he was not talking to a good teacher but to the Lord Himself.  A good teacher could give bad advice, but if he knew the advice was from God, would he have been so quick to back away?

Jesus tells his disciples that parting with riches is no small thing, and they make it difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God – but not impossible.

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” – Matthew 19:26

Did Ruler realize that had he been willing, God would have given him the strength to make it possible?  Do we realize it in what we’re facing today?

“Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also

The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still:

His kingdom is forever.”

– Martin Luther, from “A Mighty Fortress is Our God

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