The Lord’s Prayer and Evil

…but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13)

      What’s your definition of evil? I went to a high school basketball game last week with some friends whose son was a player on the home team. Since I was merely an objective bystander, I became quite entertained watching the dynamics of highly invested parents and fans.

The two teams battling each other were arch rivals. Speaking about the opponent gave rise to guttural snarls on the lips of home town fans. Anger and malice swirled in the air long before a foul was committed on the basketball court.

Much of the feelings were residual effects of previous engagements, not because of activities on the court, but because of unkind words hurled openly in FaceBook discussions and internet mediums after previous athletic contests were over.

This wasn’t a test of athletic skills, this was war in rural America.

A home town fan pointed to a man on the visitor’s side wearing a black sweater and said, “Do you see that man jumping up and getting red-faced and screaming at the kids? Can you believe that’s their superintendent of schools? Our superintendent doesn’t do things like that!” I tried to see evil in what he was doing…but failed to make the connection. I thought, he looks like every other fan, on either side. I think I’d like a superintendent who went to both home and away basketball games, and who wasn’t a stuffed-shirt education nerd. Of course, I am unaware of his behavior when he returns home. I could be wrong.

From my detached point of view, I saw nothing on the basketball floor that was remotely evil, nothing purposefully done to hurt an opponent. This was basketball, albeit not at its finest. The talents of the players were relatively equal. There was pushing and shoving for positioning, and there were bodies crashing into each other in an effort to secure an orange ball bouncing around the rim and backboards.

The deciding factor in the outcome of the game was clearly a result of one team having better ball handling skills and teamwork than the other. Except the local fans didn’t see it this way. The referees were biased. The referees were blind. The other team played dirty. If the other team had lost, the same reasons would have been appropriate.

The home team fans weren’t alone in their opinion of their adversary. Winning the game wasn’t a salve for the visiting fans whose team won. It was vindication. The mother of the opposing team’s center cornered the home team center after he came out of the locker room and chastised him for being so rough with her son. Lord have mercy. Maybe basketball is evil. It brings out the worst in people.

Let us pray.

Evil in this prayer is not the same word used when referring to evil spirits that Jesus cast out. According to one Greek scholar, evil in this seventh petition of the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t indicate evil in general because there is an article (the) present. Deliver us from the evil one himself. The devil.

However, the other Greek definitions indicate this evil could refer to things that bring annoyances, hardship, cause pain and trouble. That’s usually what I think of when I pray “deliver us from evil” in the Lord’s Prayer. I doubt that it refers to the annoyance I feel with an opposing basketball team’s fans.

Yet I have a new way to think of evil as it is prayed in this petition. It comes as a result of the implications given in two out of three translations from the Aramaic:

ela patzân min bischa.
But let us be freed from that what keeps us off from our true purpose.

But free us from what holds us back from our true purpose.

Deliver us from evil.

 but deliver us from the evil thing. (from the Kadish)

 *          *          *

     Who or what holds us back from our true purpose? Is it the evil one – the one who is red, has horns and a pitchfork? Satan, the adversary? The referee? The one who lives within us that is capable of turning a contest of physical skills into a war of words and emotions? That’s too complex to handle here – I’ll deal with that another time.

A more directed question is this: what is our true purpose? Let’s go back to a point I stated in a previous post: the Lord’s Prayer is primarily a community prayer. “Our” Father, give “us” daily bread, forgive “our” sins as “we” forgive others, lead “us” not into temptation, deliver “us” from evil. Free “us” from what holds “us” back from “our” true purpose.

Followers of Jesus might say their purpose as a community, a team, is to continue His work in the world – healing, comforting, feeding, casting out unclean spirits, and spreading the good news of the kingdom of God. Other faith traditions might see their purpose differently.

I pray this prayer as an individual, too. What is my purpose? And how does my purpose contribute as one part of the body to the community’s purpose? Maybe if I could clear everything away that holds me back from discovering my true purpose, I might recognize it and get better at it. “Free me, Lord, from those things that hold me back from my true purpose.”

On second thought, maybe I’ll take up basketball. Theoretically. it’s supposed to help you grow physically and mentally, increase your personal and teamwork skills, and teach you patience and self-control. Then I’ll be delivered from sitting in the bleachers—for that’s not always the kingdom of God. But it was a lot of fun!

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