From youth when told that Jesus cast out evil spirits, I imagined Casper-like demonic beings that got inside and disrupted one’s internal harmony of body or mind. They were external forces. Imagining disconnected spiritual entities is a child’s way of putting into concrete form those hard-to-explain, internal influences that erupt in actions that harm oneself or others.
My understanding of evil has broadened after examining the origins of the word and how it was translated from ancient writings.
The Hebrew word for evil (ra’) means several things, ranging from the opinion that something (1) is bad, like fruit that has rotted or meat that has putrefied; (2) is displeasing, as a woman might be in the eyes of her patriarchal husband; or (3) is harmful, like wild beasts, poisonous berries, or disease.
In a general sense, evil refers to anything that causes pain, unhappiness, or misery. This can include punishment that some people call “discipline” sent by God. I don’t like the idea that God sends evil upon us, but as you see, words from other languages can mean more than the one thing we tend to think about in English. (See my video post about difficulties in translation.)
In the Old Testament language of Hebrew, a man whose heart was evil could be sorrowful or vicious, depending upon the context.
Jesus spoke Aramaic, a language with similarities to Hebrew. The Aramaic word for evil (bisha) allows you to imagine a deeper origin for the behavior. It refers to a sense of being unripe or undeveloped. Other interpretations include corrupt, immature, or a diversion.
The roots of bisha point to those things that distract you from moving forward. They express what is not ready or is out of rhythm with what is harmonious. The inappropriate action that comes from a person who is not in rhythm or who is not moving toward peace and harmony could be regarded as evil.
In contrast, the Aramaic word for “good” is taba. It means “ripe” or that something is ready for its purpose. What is done at the right time and place, and we’ll assume, for the right reason, can be called good. Its roots point to something that maintains its integrity and health by inner growth in harmony with what surrounds it.
Paul wrote to the Thessalonians,”See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all” (1 Thess. 5:15). Using different words for good and evil, look how you might retranslate it:
Do not repay immature actions
(actions out of rhythm with harmony and unity),
with the same unripeness;
but respond with maturity,
with ripe actions that restore health and harmony.
I’ll condense it further: Stop acting like children.
Stop reacting to the immature or unripe actions of others without thinking. Pause. Use your brain. Exercise the wisdom and creativity necessary to restoring health, wholeness, unity, and peace to every situation.
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A lot of us are tired of the mentality that says you have to go to war against evil in the world. Punishment and retaliation will not stop the negative behaviors of immature people.
Darkness has never gotten rid of darkness. Only the light can get rid of darkness.
You can’t make an immature tree produce ripe fruit any other way except to give it adequate sunlight, warmth, water, and nourishment. When you help a tree to secure what it needs to reach its full potential, only then can it produce good fruits. Sunshine and warmth start with mature people shining on the immature with acts of kindness.
If peace, harmony, and unity are your desire, then as Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” You have to be a good tree, producing ripe fruit right where you are. Your good fruit will become the light that inspires others to act with maturity and do the same. When enough of us start responding with wisdom and maturity in our worlds, then the light from us will conquer the darkness.
Acting with maturity will improve the quality of your own life. Whatever you sow, that is what you will reap. Why forego bringing goodness to yourself just because others refuse to bring goodness to themselves by casting seeds of discord, anger, and hate? Love can overcome hate.
When you bring sunshine and warmth into the negative environment of a tree’s life, that tree stands a better chance of developing to its full potential. One day you may see and even experience fruits that you never believed possible from trees you thought were worthless.
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What about the word “perfect” in the text, as in be perfect just as your Father in heaven is perfect? The Greek word for perfect (τέλειός) means “complete, full-grown, fully developed, adult” as it applies to character and integrity. It corresponds with the word “good.”
Another way to translate it might sound like this: Therefore be the ultimate example of character and integrity, just as your Father in heaven is the ultimate example of character and integrity.
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The bottom line, if you are perfect, complete, fully developed, mature, the ultimate example of character and integrity: Don’t resist evildoers. Don’t resist the immature or the undeveloped. If you do, you’ll be acting the way children act. Instead, be a rope. You know what happens when you push a rope. If there’s no resistance, there’s nothing to push against. If you stop returning evil with evil, you are doing your part to stop the cycle of sin, pain, and evil in the world.