Absolute good

Question: The Gospel records Jesus as saying the following: “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). It seems a bit harsh for Jesus to refer to mankind as “wicked.” Can you explain?

Gerry Reeding, via email

Answer: The Greek text underlying the translation “wicked” is rather intensive and clear: poneroi hyparchontes. “Poneroi” means “bad, of a bad nature or condition.” “Hyparchontes” is translated as “from the very beginning” or “being inherently so.”

Thus, the translation “you who are evil” is accurate, but more precisely translated as “if you then, being evil from the beginning.” 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 “wicked.”

One of the Fathers, St. Bede, interprets the phrase to refer to the “human mortal, weak and still burdened with sinful flesh … earthly and weak, [but] children whom he loves” (Homilies on the Gospel 2.14).

Hence we need not interpret the Lord’s words as merely harsh. Jesus, it would seem, is speaking by comparison or degree here. He does not likely 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, and ancient Jews would often use absolute categories to set forth comparison or degree. Hence Jesus is setting forth a comparison in a Jewish sort of way. 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 good things to those who ask him?”

However, the point of the hyperbole should not be missed or set aside. Created things may share in God’s goodness, but God alone is absolutely good. So good is God that everything else is nearly evil in comparison to him. The hyperbole places the emphasis of God’s absolute goodness. We have no goodness apart from God’s goodness. Thus, Bede says in the same place, “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.”

40 days

Question: Someone said that Lent is not exactly 40 days. If this is true, then why do we call it the “40 days?”

Melissa Romano, St. Louis

Answer: The General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, published by the Vatican, says, “Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive” (No. 28). This is 44 days. Omitting Sundays (which are part of Lent) does not help since that adds to 39. Saying Lent doesn’t really begin until the First Sunday of Lent yields 40 but defies the definition given in the General Norms and Tradition.

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Thus, in saying, “40 Days of Lent” we speak generally, not literally. The period is approximately 40 days, and so we call it the 40 days. This troubles some, but really it shouldn’t. Exactitude and specificity have their place, but we often speak inexactly and generally. Thus, we may say something “lasted a month.” But that could mean 28 days, 30 or 31 days, and even occasionally 29 days. But the word “month” still applies, and we adjust.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org.