The Gospel for today’s Mass records Jesus as saying the following:
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him? (Lk 11:13)
I received an e-mail today regarding this verse:
This line bugs me. I think I know the larger point that Jesus makes here, and/or perhaps it’s poorly translated, but it seems a bit harsh for Jesus to refer to mankind as “evil”. Evil? That’s tough stuff! But perhaps, to Jesus, we are evil. I don’t know. Bring on the redemption Lord!!!
So what is going on here? Why does Jesus call us evil?
Let’s check first and make the translation is good. The Greek expression πονηροὶ ὑπάρχοντες (poneroi hyparchontes). Now poneroi is defined in the Greek lexicon as “bad, of a bad nature or condition.” But it is also defined as “full of labors, annoyances, hardships.” And hyparchontes is translated as “from the very beginning” or “being inherently.”
Thus the translation “you who are evil” is likely accurate. It might be more precisely translated as “If you then, being inherently bad (or evil).” Or perhaps also it could be rendered as “If you then, being evil from the beginning….”
But it also seems, if we take the second meaning of poneroi it could be rendered: “If then you, being full of labors (or hardships)…” However, I checked over a dozen translations over at Biblos.com and none of them render it in this secondary way. All of them simply say, “If then, you who are evil….”
So it seems the bottom line analysis of the text in Greek is that we’re stuck with the fact that the Lord is calling us “evil.”
What do the Commentaries say? It is interesting that in the seven modern commentaries I consulted, none of them make any mention of this expression. However some of the ancient Fathers make mention of the phrase:
1. Cyril of Alexandria says, When he says, “You who are evil” he means, “You whose mind is capable of being influenced by evil and not uniformly inclined to good like the God of all. (Commentary on Luke, Homily 79)
2. Bede interprets the phrase to mean, Any human mortal, weak and still burdened with sinful flesh, does not refuse to give the good things which he possesses, although they are earthly and weak, to the children whom he loves. (Homilies on the Gospel 2.14)
3. Bede also says elsewhere: He calls the lovers of the world evil, who give those things which they judge good according to their sense, which are also good in their nature, and are useful to aid imperfect life. Hence he adds, “[They] know how to give good gifts to [their] children.” The Apostles even, who by the merit of their election had exceeded the goodness of mankind in general, are said to be evil in comparison with Divine goodness, since nothing is of itself good but God alone (Quoted in the Catena Aurea at Lk 11:13)
4. Athanasius Says: Now unless the Holy Spirit were of the substance of God, Who alone is good, He would by no means be called good, since our Lord [Jesus] refused to be called good, inasmuch as He was made man. (Quoted in the Catena Aurea at Luke 11:13)
Therefore if I can be so bold to enter the company of these Ancient and approved Fathers of the Church I would like to draw a conclusion from our consideration of what the Lord means by calling us evil.
1. Jesus, it would seem, is speaking by comparison or degree here. He may not mean that we are evil in an absolute sense, rather, that we are evil in comparison to God who is absolute good. The Hebrew and Aramaic languages tend to lack comparative words and this means that ancient Jews would often use absolute categories to set forth comparison or degree. For example elsewhere Jesus tells us that we must hate our father, mother, children even our very self and that we must love him (e.g. Luke 14:26). This does not mean we are to literally despise our family and others. It means we are to love Jesus more than them. Ancient Jews spoke this way and used a lot of what we consider to be hyperbole (exaggeration) due to the lack of comparative words in Hebrew and Aramaic. Hence in calling us “evil” that Lord may not mean it in an absolute sense but is setting forth a comparison in a Jewish sort of way. Hence in modern English we might tend to say, “If you then, who are not nearly as holy as God and are prone to sin, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will God, who is absolutely good and not prone to sin give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
2. However, we ought to be careful here as well not simply to discount Jewish hyperbole and simply re-write it as I have done. The point of the hyperbole cannot be missed or set aside. Created things may share in God’s goodness, but God ALONE is absolutely good. So good is He, in fact, that everything else is practically evil in comparison to him. The hyperbole places the emphasis of God’s absolute goodness. We have no goodness apart from God’s goodness. And, if we do share in God’s goodness, it is infinitesimal in comparison to God. Hence, as Bede says above: The Apostles even, who by the merit of their election had exceeded the goodness of mankind in general, are said to be evil in comparison with Divine goodness, since nothing is of itself good but God alone.
3. As an illustration, some decades and many pounds ago, I ran track. We would sometimes josh a runner who had lost a race by saying, “That guy ran past you so fast you looked like you were standing still!” It was hyperbole (and a cruel one at that). However, the exaggeration was meant to make a real point: he out-classed you, he whooped you. And so it is that, even if Jesus is using hyperbole and absolute categories, we cannot miss the point: whatever goodness we have is really a participation in God’s goodness. God is so great that our goodness can barely be seen as goodness.
4. Even Jesus refused the title “good” for himself in terms of his humanity. In the Gospel of Mark we have the following dialogue: As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good — except God alone. (Mk 10:17-18). Now, as God, Jesus is good. One would also argue that in his sinless humanity Jesus was also good. But, presuming the man merely regarded him as ordinarily human, Jesus rebukes him and declares that God alone is good.
5. So, in the end, it’s time for some humble pie. Jesus probably does not mean we are absolutely evil and with nothing good in us. But God ALONE is absolutely good. And he is so good that we can barely be thought of as anything but evil in the face of his immense goodness. Humble pie doesn’t have much sugar in it, does it?