“Now, behold, one came and said to Him, ‘Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?’ So He said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is God’” (Matthew 19:16)
The evangelist St. Matthew remembered that strange exchange and pondered over Christ’s response to the polite young man who call our Lord “good.” At first it appears to be a put-down, a call for honesty beyond empty flattery. It’s more than that. It answers the question, “What shall I do?” The Lord responded – precisely what you are not willing to do; i.e., sell the wealth you cherish, and then follow Him. It’s not a matter of doing, but being; or rather, becoming. Eternal life is a prize worth every price, including property.
More, the question: “Why call Me good?” Only God is good. If you mean what you are saying, you must first recognize that “I” [Christ Jesus] am God – that would require insight, but such a revelation would come only to those who are His apostles and disciples. True goodness is a great mystery transcending the dictionary definition, certainly the meaning bantered about by those who are outside the boundaries of spirituality. Even the original apostles would not understand how much the God in Jesus loved the world, by offering His own life as a sacrifice in the cruel and painful death by crucifixion.
That requires even further meditation, for in what way does Christ’s crucifixion display the goodness of His heavenly Father? Salvation is the Church’s response, which is correct. Still, if it is only Jesus the Son of God who actually suffered, does that explain the goodness of the Father and the Holy Spirit? It does, since all three Persons of the Holy Trinity were united and engaged in the redemption of humanity, the primary agent being the Son of God who became Son of Man for our sakes. All Three were involved in creation, therefore, all Three are included in our salvation as Creator, Redeemer and Perfecter.
God is [in the words of Lev Karsavin] “Absolute Goodness.” The Absolute Goodness does not forsake its creation even in its most pitiable state, so that “through the Divine Incarnation the self-limitedness of man in his insufficiency becomes an element in the Deity, redeemed and fulfilled in the God-Man.” [Holy Fathers and Teachers of the Church]
We have that truth in some way in the famous parable of the Return of the Prodigal [Luke 15:11-32]; however, it is not precisely the whole meaning of God’s gracious goodness. In the parable we can understand the father to be indeed the heavenly Father, which seems to be the overall message of our Lord Jesus. However, the son in the tale was in fact a wastrel who squandered his inheritance, so the message is that he and all like him regardless of their sinful past are forgiven by a good and loving father. Jesus Christ is not a prodigal; indeed, the only born of Adam and Eve for whom the title of sinner does not have any meaning. He is the incarnation of goodness, which the man in the quote above did not recognize, nor would he unless and until he was prepared to sell all his worldly possessions for the blessing of poverty, an act that would not insure his recognition of Jesus’ true nature, but at least a good beginning.
Any idea of goodness, much less divine goodness, is limited by our creaturely limitations compounded by our sinful fallen state of existence. More than presumptuous, it would be a gross arrogance and ignorance to presume to fathom the depths of God’s benevolence not just to humanity, but to all life on our planet. As wise servants of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, we do well to praise and glorify the Holy Trinity for every good and perfect gift from above, beginning with our own salvation.