Pure goodness is a cultivated grape. Not the wild grapes which grow uncontrolled, with thick skins and lots of seeds, but the domestic grapes which are delicate and rich in flavor and juice.
Like the cluster of grapes carried back from the promised land to show the Israelites what to expect from God’s promise (Numbers 13: 23), our character is judged by the grapes of goodness that we cultivate in our lives. In John 15:1-8, Jesus compares us to the branches on a grapevine. He says:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts away every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already clean because of what I have said to you.
Stay joined to me, and I will stay joined to you. Just as a branch cannot produce fruit unless it stays joined to the vine, you cannot produce fruit unless you stay joined to me. I am the vine, and you are the branches. If you stay joined to me, and I stay joined to you, then you will produce lots of fruit. But you cannot do anything without me. If you don’t stay joined to me, you will be thrown away . You will be like dry branches that are gathered up and burned in a fire. Stay joined to me and let my teachings become part of you. Then you can pray for whatever you want, and your prayer will be answered. When you become fruitful disciples of mine, my Father will be honored.” (CEV)
In Matthew 19:16-22, we can read an account of a rich young ruler who came to Jesus and asked the Rabbi how to achieve pure goodness. “Good Teacher, what good thing can I do to earn eternal life?” Jesus responded to the man with a rebuke. “Why do you call me good?” He asked. “There is only One who is good, and that is God.”
What a surprise! What could Jesus have meant by saying that only One is good? Did He really mean to say that He was not good, because only God is good and He is not God?
No. I believe Jesus was making a point to the ruler and to his followers, and anyone else who would listen to His response: No man can be good. That word is designated to God alone. If the rich man wasn’t willing to proclaim Jesus as God’s own son, “God-as-man”, then he had no right to call Jesus good. Because no one is good but God.
But notice the rest of Jesus’s conversation with the young man. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, but the man questions Him more. “I’ve kept the laws since I was a child. What else can I do?”
The man isn’t content to hear what good he can do by following the laws. He wants to go the extra mile; he wants to know something he’s not already doing. So Jesus gives him the answer. “If you want to be perfect, then sell everything you own. Give the money to the poor, and come follow me. Your reward will be in heaven.” With that, the rich man went away sad. He wasn’t ready to give up his life. To him, that was an impossible thing to ask.
We’re like the rich young ruler. We have friends and family; we have obligations that must be met. It’s not as simple as selling everything you own and giving the money to the poor. That’s too much to ask for, isn’t it?
I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect either. Neither of us will ever be able to be good like God is good. But if we keep reading into the next part of the story, found in Matthew 19:23-30, we can see that we are not expected to be perfect.
“It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus tells this fact to his disciples twice, as if they didn’t hear Him the first time. And maybe they didn’t, because when they heard it, they were astonished! “But then who can be saved?” If a rich young ruler who honored Jesus enough to call him ‘Good Teacher’ and inquire about eternal life couldn’t enter the kingdom of heaven, then who could possibly be good enough?
Jesus reassures them with a simple truth: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” The ruler wasn’t expected to be perfect. The answer to his first question, “what can I do to earn eternal life?” was simply to keep the laws: do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal or lie, honor your parents, and love your neighbor as yourself. The man was seeking the impossible. He wanted to be perfect.
Coincidentally, the parable of workers in the vineyard is the very next chapter (Matthew 20:1-16):
“For the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of an estate who went out in the morning along with the dawn to hire workmen for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour (nine o’clock), he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; And he said to them, You go also into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will pay you. And they went. He went out again about the sixth hour (noon), and the ninth hour (three o’clock) he did the same. And about the eleventh hour (five o’clock) he went out and found still others standing around, and said to them, Why do you stand here idle all day? They answered him, Because nobody has hired us. He told them, You go out into the vineyard also and you will get whatever is just and fair.” (AMPC)
The story ends with the owner of the estate giving a denarius to all of his workers, whether they were hired at dawn or at five o’clock. The workers who harvested the most grapes received the same amount as the workers who harvested the least amount of grapes. To the owner who was paying the workers, he could see that the work of ALL the workers was good.
Let’s go back to John 15. Jesus tells his disciples that He is the vine and His followers are all branches. We need to recognize that while we are not perfect, Jesus is. And He is the vine which gives us –his branches- life. It’s through Him that we produce the fruits of goodness. It’s only God the Gardener who can create goodness, the same way that he did in Genesis 1, while he was creating the heavens and the earth. Each day that passed in the beginning, He saw that all He had created was good.
If we take God out of our lives, then we will not produce goodness for any occasion. We will only be like the wild bitter grapes with tough skins and seeds. Or worse- barren and with no grapes at all!
Micah 7:1-2 (GNT) “It’s hopeless! I am a hungry person who finds no fruit left on the trees and no grapes on the vines. All the grapes and all the tasty figs have been picked. There is not an honest person left in the land, no one loyal to God. Everyone is waiting for a chance to commit murder. Everyone hunts down their own people.”
Isaiah 5:3-7 (VOICE) “Eternal One: That’s it. Enough. Now, you who live in My special city, Jerusalem, you people of this choice country, Judah, Who’s in the right—Me or My vineyard? What else could I possibly have done to make it flourish? Why, when I had every reason to expect great beauty and bushels of grapes, did it yield only wild, bitter fruit? I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, what I’ve determined to do to My vineyard: I’m going to take away its protective fence and let the deer, raccoons, and rabbits devour it. I’ll break down its wall, let the vines be eaten and trampled. I will set it up for destruction— do no pruning, no tilling— And it will be overrun with nasty briars and thornbushes. I will even order the clouds not to water it. See here, the vineyard of the Eternal, the Commander of heavenly armies, is the house of Israel, His special people. And the shoots and buds He nursed so lovingly along are the people of this choice country, Judah. He expected a paragon of justice and righteousness— but everywhere injustice runs bloodred in the streets, and cries echo in the city!”
To cultivate goodness in our lives, we can start by reading Philippians 4:8 and applying it to the way we act.
“In conclusion, my friends, fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable.”