A man asks Jesus a question today. And from what St. Luke tells us about this man he sounds like a very good person, he’d make an ideal parishioner. He is described in other gospels as being a ruler of sorts and he’s wealthy, but instead of being materialistic his thoughts are spiritual and he’s concerned about eternity, about his salvation. And so he asks Jesus the profound question: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He prefaces this question by addressed Jesus as “good teacher”.
He is very sincere. He’s very serious, a law abiding citizen and regularly attends worship at the synagogue. But the Lord doesn’t answer his question. Instead, He asks him one: “Why do you call me good?” He wants the man to stop for a second and reflect on what he really thinks of Jesus. Maybe he’s come to confess that Jesus is truly the Son of God. For, indeed, if only God is good, as Jesus says, maybe this man is going to say to Jesus, You’re good because you’re God. Also, if the man really and truly believes, with all his heart and soul, that this man named Jesus is a ‘good teacher’ then he will listen to what He has to say to him.
But, you see, none of that happens. The man came expecting something altogether different. He had come completely prepared. He has done everything that was needed to be done. He had followed all the rules and commandments. And to get things going on a good start he begins his conversation off with a bit of flattery. And so he calls Jesus “good teacher”. Flattery is a very good thing. We should compliment one another and say nice things to each other. But there is also insincere flattery, things we say to people not necessarily to make them feel good as much as we want to make ourselves feel good. Yet, despite there being a good and bad, a sincere and insincere form of flattery statistically researchers say that flattery works. It works because of the simple fact that it feels good being flattered, complimented, it feels good when someone says nice things about us even if we know it’s not altogether true.
The thing with flattery, however, is that while it might work, it typically only works for a short while. Maybe that’s why people say “flattery will get you nowhere” because, in the end, that’s what’ll happened. That’s what happened to the man in today’s gospel.
Note that it was this man – and not Jesus – who brings up the issue of goodness. He brings it up so that he could prove his own goodness. Someone who does nice things, who helps others, who gives to the synagogue is considered to be a good person. And let’s face it, those are the things that someone we consider to be a good person would do. Yet, this doesn’t mean – just because we do these things – that we can enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. For no amount of good works can ever earn us a ticket to heaven. That’s the meaning of Christ’s words in today’s gospel: “only God is good”. God is the source of everything good. He is the one who brings all things into being and the One who declares them good. Let’s not forget the words we say in the Creed about Christ and His Second Coming: “And He shall judge both the living and the dead.”
Certainly, we are all called to follow the commandments of God. Scripture tells us that. This morning’s gospel reading tells us that. But we are not saved because we are good. We’re saved because God is good. Salvation is a gift that every person has received, to seek out and find through our own, individual efforts and battles over temptations. Through repentance and prayer and fasting. But, above all, with a real and genuine and sincere love for God and one another.
That’s the one and only ticket to heaven. And the only answer we can possibly have when God asks us: “Why do you say I’m good?”