Save us from falling into temptation
and deliver us from evil.
These last two lines of the Our Father are our focus today. With the possible exception of Give us today our supersubstantial Bread, these lines have probably generated the greatest amount of discussion among Christians who pray them faithfully every day and yet struggle to understand these lines as they have come down to us.
Most English translations say Lead us not into temptation. We might wonder, “Why do we have to ask God not to lead us into temptation? Is leading us into temptation something He would want to do?”
In the summer of 2019, when Pope Francis gave his approval to revise this line to something that indicated that it is we who fall into temptation, rather than God leading us into temptation, these words became the subject of a significant amount of media coverage. And it wasn’t just the religious media: the Guardian, Sky News, The Independent – even some of the tabloids – got in on the action, as they reported on changes to the wording of this ancient Christian prayer.
A quick Google search reveals that, probably for the first time in a long time, their coverage was not fraught with the sort of lazy misunderstandings that we have come to expect from the mainstream media whenever reporting on Christian issues. By and large, they actually summed up the pope’s reasoning with an uncharacteristic degree of accuracy and fairness.
I suppose we ought to be grateful that our Faith, and the central prayer of our Faith, managed to garner so much attention from the world around us. It should remind us of the days of the Ecumenical Councils of the Church, back in the first millennium, when the bishops from around the Christian world would gather in some city or other to discuss the pressing theological issues of the day – matters which threatened to tear the Church apart.
For the local people in those cities, these would have been astoundingly huge events, much like the Olympics today, and scholars tell us that matters such as the divinity of Christ, the title of Theotokos/Mother of God and its meaning, the theology of the holy icons, and other such matters were discussed not only by bishops and theologians, but they were the hot button topics of everyday conversation. People were talking about these things in the streets, at the fish markets, and in the public baths, in the way that perhaps today they would be talking about the latest goings-on with the Kardashians, or what they thought about the Meghan and Harry interview.
In the 21st century, Christians are not accustomed to this sort of public interest in our worshipping life, and I’m afraid we didn’t handle it very well at all. We had a golden opportunity to show a united front before the world as we made the words we use express our faith in a loving, caring God, Who would never lead us into temptation and desires only our union with Him.
But instead, what actually happened? Well, there was some rather ferocious opposition from many people – Catholic and Orthodox, and perhaps others – who felt an attachment to the traditional wording for one reason or another, and these arguments and this bickering, not to mention a number of personal attacks, are what was put on display during that brief moment that the world was watching. Perhaps some time praying the words rather than arguing about them might have been more beneficial.
Nonetheless, the change has been made in the Roman Catholic text in a number of languages, having already been made in the ecumenical English text in the 1970s – nearly half a century ago – and in our Western Orthodox churches in the early 2000s.
Now it is true that the Greek used in the Gospels does clearly give the reading, Lead us not into temptation, and this is what has come down to us in Holy Scripture. However, we must remember that the Saviour did not teach his disciples this prayer in Greek, and that due to the way that verbs work in Aramaic and Hebrew, which were the languages of the Saviour, another understanding is present – one which is much more in keeping with the God we know. Sadly, this understanding would have been lost in translation into Greek. This is very well explained in an article by our own Bishop Gregory, who is a scholar of languages, and semitic languages in particular. The task faced by us, then, is to try to ascertain which reading better expresses our faith in the God Who has revealed Himself to us.
Do we know God as a God Who would want to lead us into temptation and who is only prevented from doing so by our prayers? Or do we know a God Who, at every turn, in every breach of the Covenant by his people, has reached out to save us, time and time again, and eventually united Himself to us by becoming one of us, and conquered our death by his death and Resurrection, and ascended into heaven so that we may follow? Do we know a God Who wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus, and restored him to life just before his Passion, as a promise of the resurrection that awaits all of us? Do we know a God Who calls each one of us by name, and feeds us with his Body and his Blood, so that we might share in union of life with Him?
Would this God, Whom we know intimately, allow us to face temptations? Of course He would. Might He put us to the test in some circumstances? Perhaps. But would He lead us and cause us to fall into those temptations? No – this is not the God known to Christians. Surely there is something amiss with the traditional wording.
Of course, all of this might just sound like speculation about what the Aramaic might have said – after all, this has not come down to us in written form – but before we dismiss this understanding altogether as a novelty, we should remember that Tertullian, St Cyprian of Carthage, and St John Chrysostom all interpret the prayer in this way: that it is we who lead ourselves into temptation and it is God Who helps us to overcome it. St Cyprian even goes as far as to translate the text of the prayer in such a way that it reflects this understanding.
This tells us that, at least as early as the 3rd century, the Church Fathers were already expressing the meaning of the prayer in this way, and what Francis did in the Catholic church in 2019 was to place himself in very good company indeed, and finally to catch up with what the Western Orthodox churches and users of the ecumenical version of the prayer had already been doing for decades.
Over the past few weeks we have been singing the office hymn for Lent written by St Gregory the Great in the 6th century, and some of us might have found that the words, which began as a great encouragement to us at the start our Lenten journey now serve to accuse us, and make us aware of the ways in which, over these few weeks, we have continued to fall into temptation, and they have served as a reminder of our need for the mercy and forgiveness of God.
More sparing therefore let us make
the words we speak, the food we take;
from drunken mirth may we be barred
from ev’ry excess be on guard.
Avoid the evil thoughts that findFrom “Ex More Docti Mystico” – Pope St Gregory the Great
a haven in the wand’ring mind;
let not the cunning foe impart
his tyranny within our heart.
Have we kept our Lenten obligation? Whether we set out to keep the fast in full or in a modified form, or to amend our behaviour in some way, or to stop ourselves from harbouring ill feelings towards others, I’m sure we can all think of some way in which we have fallen short.
Every evening at Vespers, at the raising of the incense, we pray the words from Psalm 140:
Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth,
and a door of enclosure and protection around my lìps.
Do not incline my heart to evil words,Psalm 140: 3-4
to make excuses for my sins.
We pray these words because we know that we are powerless to overcome temptation on our own. So every day we cry out to God to save us from falling into temptation, and to deliver us from the evil one.
With this reflection we have ended our journey through the prayer we call the Our Father, and we will soon end the liturgical journey we have made back to our Father’s house throughout this season of Lent, as we approach the heart of the Christian year: Holy Week and Pascha.
In today’s Gospel (Luke 11: 1-44) we heard of events that reveal to us the power of God over death, over evil, and over everything that is contrary to his will. The Saviour raised Lazarus from the dead while on his way to Jerusalem where He would Himself undergo death on the Cross and shatter its power over humankind.
The raising of Lazarus was a prefiguring of what awaits all of us, but it relies on our synergy – our co-operation – with God throughout our lives, to grow into his likeness, his holiness, his light, and to avoid temptations and the grip of evil, however it manifests itself in our lives.
This begins at our baptism and continues throughout our lives on this earth. Therefore, as we cross ourselves at the start of the Our Father, when we remind ourselves of the cross traced upon us at our baptism and claim our place as adopted children of the Father, so we cross ourselves again at the end of the prayer, this time as we call down the saving power of the Cross of Christ to deliver us from evil. So as we approach Holy Week, when the Cross, a symbol of torture, death, and shame, becomes for Christians a symbol of glory, of life, and of victory of evil and death, I close with some words from St Ephrem the Syrian:
‘Let us not be ashamed to confess the Crucified One; let us boldly make the sign of the Cross on the forehead, and on everything; on the bread which we eat; on the cups from which we drink; let us make it at our going out, and coming in; when we journey and when we rest: It is a great safeguard, given to the poor without price, and to the weak without labour. For this is the Grace of God; a token for the faithful, and a terror for evil spirits.’