You may have noticed in this news this week that Pope Francis has bravely stepped into one of the most treasured prayers in the Christian faith. He has suggested a different translation for ‘Lead us not into temptation’ in the Lord’s Prayer. His reasoning is that it is not God who leads us but rather we who fall and so the clause needs a bit of a re-write. This has been regarded as being highly controversial, but of course we know that there are several versions of the Lord’s Prayer and that’s before we open a Bible! There is the traditional language version ‘And lead us not into temptation’, known and loved for centuries. There was the Series 3 version of the 1970s ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial’. This was followed in the 1980s by the ASB version which reverted to ‘Lead us not into temptation’ and then that was carried through in 2000 into the Common Worship version we use today.
If we open a Bible the Lord’s Prayer becomes much more complicated and you can see this on the sheet you have been given (see image above) this morning with these three versions printed side by side – Matthew, Luke and the Common Worship. We see that what has become the traditional version – whether it is in 16th century English or contemporary language – is not the same as the biblical versions. The two versions, one in Matthew and one in Luke, are shorter and different. Luke is a mere sketch in comparison to Matthew’s fuller prose. ‘Temptation’ is only one of a number of places where the versions differ. The biblical versions plead that we are not brought to the time of trial. And crucial for our understanding here is not just the ‘trial’ or ‘temptation’, but the being brought into it.
The word translated ‘trial’ or ‘temptation’ refers to both inward temptations and seductions as well as outward trials and afflictions which test faith. So this is what hooks us from inside us as well as assaults that shake us from outside. The request in the prayer is not merely a call for protection from these, but a call to be preserved in them and from them. Put another way it is more like saying ‘Give me strength’ when under pressure. As Pope Francis is keen to stress, God is not pulling strings for his own amusement, where we get led off and tested, tempted and diverted from a righteous path. That is what we see in the Old Testament Book of Job. Here God is depicted as using Job as a test case, and all sorts of calamities fall on him in a bizarre game to prove a point, namely that Job is a good man and made of tough, resilient stuff. That’s the point of the story – resilience rooted in faithfulness to God. The Lord’s Prayer is not for warriors and the already resilient but more for the rest of us who struggle and need help. So this is not a ‘let me show you what I’m made of’ moment; that would be a very brave prayer indeed. We are frail and vulnerable, susceptible to all sorts of distractions and being led astray. When temptation or trial strikes, as we all know they do, this prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, offers a petition that we don’t yield to them, ‘let me not succumb’, ‘let me be delivered from the evil that assaults us’, whether that comes from within us or from outside of us.
That all seems to be a possible reading of the familiar phrase ‘lead us not into temptation’, though it would probably be better translated ‘let us not be led into temptation’ or ‘do not let us fall into temptation’, or even ‘give me strength when temptation comes’. So I think Pope Francis has a point. What we are praying for is God’s strength to hold fast through this; for spiritual resilience.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost. The day we remember the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples, strengthening them and inspiring them. It is the day they found the strength and confidence to become Apostles, to be sent out to speak and tell the story of the hope we have in Jesus Christ. It is the day they received what they needed to be spiritually resilient. The gift of the Holy Spirit does this in a number of ways. One of them is through strengthening when the going is tough or we are under assault from different sides.
There are times when the temptation can be to snap or bite back, and a short rocket petition fired off for the grace and strength we need, is an example of seeking to be not led, to not fall into temptation and to be delivered from evil – both within and without. Arrow prayers like this, though, are emergency calls, first responder help moments. Better is to build up the resilience over time and here the gift of the Holy Spirit becomes more of a dripping trap filling up a bucket gradually than an emergency flood. Topping up the well comes best through the normal rainfall that seeps through the layers of rock to the underground watercourses, or flows down the hills to fill up the lake. Daily prayer, frequent bible reading, being still to draw on God’s loving grace, these things fill us and sustain us.
So praying for the Holy Spirit to come is the call on God’s grace to make us resilient, to give us strength in time of temptation so that we don’t succumb. This leads into being delivered from the evil within. There is another petition to be delivered from evil without, the attacks that threaten us, but that is for another day.
The Lord’s Prayer is a treasured prayer, but as we know there are different versions and that includes within the Bible. At its core is the calling on God’s Spirit to help and sustain us, to give us strength, to ‘lead us not into temptation’, as we seek to be followers of Jesus Christ and proclaim his hope and love.
Sermon for Pentecost, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 9th June 2019