If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him? (Mt 7:11)
A similar verse occurs in the Gospel of Luke: If you then, though you are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him? (Lk 11:13)
I received an e-mail once 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.”
So what is going on here? Why does Jesus call us evil?
First let’s make sure that the translation from the Greek is a good one. The Greek expression used in Luke’s version (the Matthean uses very similar language) is πονηροὶ ὑπάρχοντες (poneroi hyparchontes). Poneroi is defined as “bad, of a bad nature or condition,” but it is also defined as “full of labors, annoyances, hardships.” Hyparchontes is defined as “from the very beginning” or “being inherently.”
Thus the translation “you who are evil” is accurate. It might be more precisely translated as “If you, then, being inherently bad (or evil) …” Or perhaps it could be rendered as “If you, then, being bad (or evil) from the beginning …”
If we use the secondary definition of poneroi, the phrase could be rendered this way: “If you, then, being full of labors (or hardships) …” However, I checked over a dozen different translations on biblos.com and none of them render it in this way; all of them simply say, “If you, then, who are evil …”
So it seems that we’re stuck with the fact that the Lord is calling us “evil.”
What do the commentaries say? It is interesting that of the seven modern commentaries I consulted, not one of them mentions this phrase. However, some of the ancient Fathers did:
- Cyril of Alexandria wrote, 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).
- In one of his homilies, Bede had this to say: 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).
- Elsewhere Bede is quoted as follows: 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 Luke 11:13).
- Athanasius said, 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 as to enter into the company of these ancient and approved Fathers of the Church, I would like to draw a conclusion on the meaning of this phrase.
Jesus seems to be speaking by comparison or degree. 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 have fewer comparative words, so the 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, and even our very self and that we must love Him (e.g., Luke 14:26). This does not mean that we are literally to despise our family and others; it means that we are to love Jesus more than we love them. Because of the paucity of comparative words available, the ancient Jews used a lot of what we would consider to be hyperbole. Hence, in calling us “evil,” the Lord may be setting forth a comparison in the way the ancient Jews would. In modern English we might 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?”
However, we ought to be careful not to simply discount Jewish hyperbole and rewrite the words as I have done. The point of the hyperbole cannot be completely set aside. Created things may share in God’s goodness, but God alone is absolutely good. So good is God, that everything else is practically evil in comparison to Him. The hyperbole places the emphasis on God’s absolute goodness. We have no goodness apart from God’s goodness. If we do share in His goodness, it is infinitesimal in comparison. 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.
Even Jesus refused the label “good” for Himself in terms of His humanity. The Gospel of Mark contains 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). As God, Jesus is good—absolute good. One could also argue that in His sinless humanity Jesus is also good; but Jesus, presuming the man merely regarded Him as ordinarily human, rebukes him and declares that God alone is good.
In the end, it’s time for us to eat some humble pie. Jesus probably does not mean we are absolutely evil and have nothing good in us, but God alone is absolutely good. 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?