When I was a new priest, I was stationed in the Hudson Valley of New York, a couple of thousand miles away from my sponsoring diocese (Rio Grande). So there was a priest back home who was assigned to keep up with me. He phoned one day and asked how I was doing.
As it happens, yours truly had been taught in grade school that it is wrong to say, “I am good,” since “good” is an adjective and what one needs is an adverb, a word that tells how you are doing, not what you are. My teachers had said that the correct answer is, “I’m well, thank you.” In New Mexico, I had noticed people saying, “I’m fine, thanks,” which does the same work, “fine” being an adverb also.
But in those days, New Yorkers talked differently. They said, “I’m good.” In those days this was (it seemed to me) a regional difference, although now it’s everywhere. I was learning how to talk (and live) like a New Yorker. So I told him on the phone, “I’m good.”
Without missing a beat he replied: “No one is good but God alone.” He chuckled over the line—he was that way, sharp and witty but also friendly. I could imagine the smile on his face as he said it. The line, of course, is Jesus’, replying to people who had addressed him as “good teacher.” But this experienced New Mexican priest was (as I like to say) correcting at once both my grammar and my theology. I might be doing well, but only God is truly good.
These thoughts recently recurred to me. I was thinking of that lovely, simple hymn, “There is a green hill far away,” which is about Jesus’ death on the cross. One stanza says: “There was no other good enough.” Jesus was good in every respect: he was the only truly good human being. He was truly, fully human—no one else was. “Good” applied to him as an adjective in truth: he was just what a human being should be.
All the rest of humanity falls short. We are not truly or fully human (which is what we mean when we say we are sinners: sin is a subtraction from our humanity). Only Jesus is good enough: only he is fully human, a truly good human being.
The hymn goes on to declare: “He died to make us good.” Jesus died so that sin and its effects might be taken away from us, which is to say, he died so that we ourselves might become fully human. To be fully human is to be a good human being. He died to make us good.
All of which means: if someone asks you how you’re doing, and you think of yourself as living in Christ, if you think of yourself as you will be when salvation is consummated for you and for all who are in Jesus, then it is correct to say, “I’m good.”
Jesus died to make us good.
Out & About. At the lovely Holy Trinity Church in Bonham, Texas, on Thursday, October 5, at 5:30 p.m., I will launch a study of my little book, A Post-Covid Catechesis. I will also join them at the end of their study, on November 30. Bonham is a gem, worth a visit—feel free to join us.
On Sunday, October 8, I will lead the Good Books & Good Talk seminar in a discussion of Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. Anyone who reads the novel is welcome to the conversation: at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas from 5 to 6:30 p.m. And if you aren’t able to read it, you’re still welcome to come and listen.
And the next Sunday, October 15, also at 5 p.m., I will offer the fall theology lecture, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. My topic is “Divine Distinctions.” You can come for the lecture—or for the Q&A—or for the reception (or any combination of the foregoing)!