Domesticating the Good or Cultivating Goodness


Before strawberries were tamed, they were an exotic fruit.  In the middle ages, Europeans considered the strawberry unfit for consumption because it grew in the woods among the serpents and toads and was thought to be contaminated.  On a rare occasion, an explorer would describe the wonderful sweetness of the dangerous strawberry.  Over time, the strawberry was tamed and cultivated.  In the 1700’s a Swedish botanist ate nothing but strawberries for a year to prove they were indeed edible.  As I prepared for this seventh fruit of the spirit it feels like we have tried to tame what was once an outrageous fruit of the spirit which abides in us by making good the opposite of bad; thus a good person does nothing bad.

We want to live the good life.  We associate goodness with feeling good and invest a lot of energy into that goal.  The pursuit to feel good can be interrupted by life.  We speak of doing good works; leading to organizing programs so more people will do more good works.  All of us have been frustrated when our best efforts to do good fall short and people lose interest in doing good.  Goodness is not about feeling good or doing good.

We fool ourselves, like the rich young ruler; into thinking to be good is to keep all the commandments. (Luke 18: 18-23)  He boils the goodness out of good by doing what is not bad.  This is why Jesus asks the rich young ruler:  “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”  Jesus is saying there’s a unique goodness about God; the source of goodness.

We are created in the image of a good God; possessing the capacity for good.  The apostle says, “We are created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  The fruit of goodness comes from the same source of goodness that was pronounced after our Creator God looked over the generosity of creation and said: “It is good.”  The word for goodness throughout scripture suggests generosity.  That is different than simply being a good person at home, work, and church.  It includes those: but the goodness God intends for us who are created in Christ Jesus to do good work, is greater than our domesticated ways.  God forgive us for taming goodness, when you offer so much more than a good life.

God’s Spirit cultivates a goodness is generous and beneficial for all.  Goodness is a quality of life that is about being generous in heart and action toward all others.  This is why in our verse today, he says, “Do not seek your own good, but that of the other.”  Goodness is a state of being that lives in an outward and generous ways to others, both friend and foe.

In our self sufficient world it is hard for some to think about bearing a life which benefits all by their generosity.  The primary deterrent to goodness of heart and action toward others is the lure of our wealth.  We begin to seek goods for ourselves, rather than goodness for the sake of others.  This is the age old problem of placing our trust in the transience of what we hold in this life.  We think I have to take care of what is mine first; preventing us from being open handed with others as God has been good to us.  We become distracted by our need to have enough for ourselves.

A certain spiritual master was pleased with his disciple’s progress, so he left him on his own; living simply in a mud hut, begging for food.  Each morning after prayers, the disciple washed his loincloth and hung it to dry.  One day, he discovered his loincloth was torn and eaten by rats.  He begged the villagers for another; they gave him one.  The rats ate that one, too; so the man got a cat.  Now when he begged for food he had to beg for milk for his cat.  Then he thought, I’ll get a cow. So, he got a cow and found he had to beg for feed for the cow.  So, he decided to plant the ground around his hut.  The man realized he was turning into a farmer and had no time for his devotions, so he hired servants.  Overseeing the laborers became so time-consuming that the man married in order to have a wife to help.  The disciple became the richest man in the village.

His teacher came to see him and was shocked to see where there was once a mud hut; was a palace, surrounded by a vast estate with servants.  The master asked the disciple, what happened.  “You won’t believe this, but there was no other way to keep my loincloth, the man replied. Proving again that lure of self can overcome any of us.

Paul ends one of his letters to his protégé, Timothy; warning him of the lure of riches.  He wants to ensure he doesn’t become consumed by a love for material gain.  (1 Timothy 6: 17-19)  He starts: “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches.” We all susceptible to falling in love with money and the things money can buy.  The amount of money we make is not the issue.  Poor as well as rich can fall prey to this seduction.

Instead Paul tells him to place his trust in “God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”  Then in v. 18 he offers specifics on what trust in a good God is like: “Do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”  Concludes by connecting goodness in this life to the next life; suggesting doing good works in this life is an investment in our future.  Paul says our goodness, “stores up for ourselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future”.  This does not mean we can buy our way into heaven by our generous works.  It does appear to mean we can keep ourselves out of heaven by saving money for ourselves that is meant to be shared in order to do good for others.  One of my mentors did not mind preaching on money, “He considered it his sacred duty to deliver people from that which if held too tightly will send them straight to hell.”  Another way to say this is: “If it could save another life, why I am holding on to it.”

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus says the same thing.  Jesus does not name the rich man, although he was probably known by everyone.  Jesus tells the story from the perspective of eternity where the name the man means nothing to God.  The beggar, Lazarus, is named.  No one may have known his name, but God knows him intimately.  The rich man needed nothing from God so he didn’t give thought to what God might need from him.  Lazarus had nothing so he could seek after God before goods.  Jesus warns of the ultimate danger of seeking goods before we seek the goodness of our generous God.

Warren Buffett’s example is easy to dismiss because of his enormous wealth.  The humble chairman of Berkshire Hathaway is giving away billions of dollars.  Buffett said, “My gifts are nothing.  I have everything I need with less than one percent of my wealth. I was born in the right country at the right time, and my work is disproportionately rewarded compared to teachers and soldiers. I’m just giving surplus that has no value to me but can do a lot for others. The people I really admire are the small donors who give up a movie or a restaurant meal to help needier people.” Are we the kind of good person Buffett admires?

We can all do something; most can do more than what we are doing.  No matter how much money we have, we are probably richer than ninety percent of the people in the world.  Alongside giving money, we can give time, things, skills, gifts of reconciliation and new beginnings. There is virtually no limit to the possibilities of what good you can do with the riches we have.  Hear what Notre Dame University is learning about good works.

We don’t have to leave the church to do good works for the poor at the gate.  We can serve in these precincts doing good.  There are ways we can find Lazarus serving FUMC.  In doing so, we may not help each other get into heaven or keep each other out of hell, but we might just begin to taste what Paul called the “life that really is life“. Got a taste for that?

Published in: on February 20, 2011 at 12:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

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