on being a good man

Remember that scene at the end of Saving Private Ryan? An old James Ryan, having remembered all the hardships and sacrifices that were endured to bring him home, kneels in front of the grave of Captain John Miller, the man who saved his life. It seems Miller’s dying words to him, “earn this,” have stayed with him all his life.

Ryan turns to his wife and says “tell me I’m a good man.”

What if the answer had been “no”? What if Ryan had tried but failed? What if he had never tried at all?

How horrible it would have been. And how horrible for us today too, to think back and look at what we’ve said or done or failed to do and say, then come to the realisation that after all that, we really are no good. What happens when we hit rock bottom like that? What if our Mrs Ryans just can’t in good conscience tell us “of course you’re a good man”? It’s no use to try harder next time – you can’t undo the past.

But rock bottom may not be such a bad thing. Jesus sheds some light on this in Luke 18:10-14. There are two men in this story, a Pharisee – an upstanding, respectable religious scholar and moral cream of the crop – and a tax collector, who is not so much a taxman as a thief, an underpaid crook hired by an oppressive foreign government, who cheats his own people and skims from the proceeds.

The Pharisee goes boldly into the place of worship and says “thank God I’m a good man! Thank God I’m not like other people who don’t follow God, thank God I’m – God forbid – not like that tax collector standing over there!”

The tax collector is fairly put in his place. All he can do is stand at the back of the temple. He looks down at his feet and says “I’m sorry, God, I’m sorry I’m no good.”

Jesus then says it’s the tax collector who will be right with God, not the Pharisee. God will lift up those who are humble, who are honest about who they are, and will lay low those who look down on others.

So in fact neither of the two men in that story were good men. But only the tax collector knew he was no good. His rock bottom is where he found his way out again, where God lifted him up. Meanwhile the ‘good man’ went home absolutely clueless about who he was and his standing before God.

Rock bottom is a horrible place to be. But it’s where we find our way out. “The prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you,” Jesus tells the religious men and the Pharisees (Mat 21:31). The starting point to following Jesus is usually found at rock bottom. Jesus promises us new life from there, all the regrets and mistakes of the past washed away.

Heaven was not built for good men, but for bad men. And thank God for that!

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