Temptation. Sermon for Lent 1 ( Yr. C)
February 25, 2007
(Romans 10.8b-13; Luke 4, 1-13)
When the ICET ( International Commission on English Texts) were working to translate the services of the Church into modern English, one of the phrases which caused them most difficulty was the penultimate petition of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Lead us not into temptation’.
Part of the difficulty stems from the possible meaning of the original Greek of the text in Matthew and Luke, and even of the Hebrew behind it. For instance, the Greek verb translated ‘lead’ could mean taking in an active sense, to lead by going before, or simply to announce. And depending on the understanding of the Hebrew behind this clause, again it could active, meaning to cause something to happen; or permissive, to allow something to happen. So, the Syriac version of the New Testament translates this “Do not make us enter into temptation”.
Again, the preposition ‘eis’ and its Hebrew original could imply simply ‘into’ or ‘as far as’ but, more strongly ‘to be placed under the power of’. So, one translation could be “Do not allow us to fall under the power of temptation” that is, be overwhelmed by it.
However, the word which gave the translators most difficulty was the word translated ‘temptation’. The Greek original is found rarely in secular Greek, but very often in Biblical Greek, both in the New Testament and in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, with a variety of meanings. It can mean simply an attempt; it can mean a test in the sense of testing a metal or testing somebody’s competence or conviction ( and in this sense it is often used of God testing human beings). It can mean a malicious attempt to trick someone, and is used in that way of the attempts of the Scribes and Pharisees to catch Jesus out by asking him trick questions. It can be used to mean the seduction into sin which is the usual modern meaning of ‘temptation’ and is used in that sense in the New Testament to describe Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert. It can mean a trial or ordeal. It can mean to tempt God.
In all of these meanings, the form of noun used implies a continuing process, not a one-off event. But our understanding of what is implied by this petition is altered by how we understand the Greek behind it.
However, some interpretations of the text are more difficult for us to accept, not because of they don’t translate the original Greek correctly, but because they run counter to our beliefs about the nature of God, or of human beings.
For instance, we believe that God is good, and wills happiness and good for human beings. So how can we even think that God would deliberately seduce us into sin or put us under the power of evil?
Secondly, it is nonsense to pray that we won’t be tempted, because temptation is part and parcel of the human condition. God gave us free will – but there would be no point in having free will if there were no circumstances in which we were tempted to choose to sin. It is a mark of being a real human being that we can be tempted to do wrong – and that is why the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is important: it shows that Jesus was, as Hebrews says, “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are”. ( Heb. 4.15) The one difference is, as Hebrews goes on to say, “yet without sinning”.
So, if we are not asking God not ever to put us into a situation where we are tempted, and we cannot conceive of God deliberately trying to make us commit sin, what are we asking in this petition?
The various modern translations of the New Testament have used a variety of phrases, most of them designed to express the hope that God will not test us beyond what we can cope with, or allow us to be overwhelmed by temptation.
The Good News Bible has “Do not bring us to hard testing” and the New English Bible “Do not bring us to the test”. The Jerusalem Bible has “Do not put us to the test” and the NRSV “Do not bring us to the time of trial”.
Most of the denominations have used a variation on that last phrase in their modern language services, and pray: “Save us from the time of trial”. You will find this version in the Methodist, the URC, and the Roman Catholic services, and in those of other Anglican churches, such as the New Zealand Church. After lengthy debates in General Synod, the Church of England could not agree to use the internationally agreed text, and we kept “Lead us not into temptation” in our modern language Lord’s Prayer as well as in our traditional language one. For my personal prayers, I much prefer Jim Cotter’s free modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer, which has: “In times of temptation and test, strengthen us; from trials too great to endure, spare us; from the grip of all that is evil, free us.”
When we pray this petition, we are asking God to be with us as we face the everyday temptations of human life. We are asking for divine protection when we face situations where the urge to sin becomes overwhelming. We are asking for divine guidance when the prompting of our own nature, or the urging of others bring us to situations where we may be tempted to flirt with sin. We are asking God not to abandon us when our faith, or our bodies are under assault.
When we do face these situations ( as all of us will) the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness shows us how God can answer this petition in the Lord’s Prayer. We do not have to take this story literally. Jesus may have had an experience like this when he spent time in the desert after his baptism by John, but since he was alone, and the conversations went on inside his head, how would anyone else have known the details? Mark has the simple statement that ‘he was tempted by Satan’; it is only Matthew and Luke who provide details of the threefold temptations. But these are temptations which Jesus would have faced during his whole ministry, as they are temptations which face any of us who try to bring others into the Kingdom of God. So it is perfectly possible to see the story of the time in the wilderness as a word picture of the temptations of ministry for Jesus and for ourselves.
The first is the temptation to bring people into faith by providing for their material needs alone. Perhaps there are secondary temptations also; to provide the basic necessities of life, but only to those of ‘our’ faith; or the temptation, which is so prevalent in our society, to believe that the accumulation of goods will bring happiness. Jesus answers this by affirming the supreme importance of the spiritual – the Word of God – rather than the material – bread.
The second temptation is to use political power, including force, to bring people to faith. We can all think of examples of Christians giving in to this temptation throughout our history – from the way the final texts of the Creeds were arrived at, to the Crusades, and the wars of religion that so disfigured Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Jesus rejects this by quoting from Deuteronomy a verse that insists that worship must be given to God, because of God’s character, and not in response to political power or force, which in this case are seen as works of the Devil.
Finally there is the temptation to bring about faith by demonstrations of God’s miraculous power, which is, in effect, to tempt God. Again, we can all think of times when churches have tried to prove that they have the one true faith by appeals to signs and wonders, or miraculous cures to which they alone have access. Jesus again quotes from the Hebrew scriptures which forbid testing out God’s support in this way, and during his ministry he refused to provide signs ‘to order’.
Jesus was saved in his time of trial, and delivered from evil because of his close relationship with God, and his total reliance on God’s love and support. It was a relationship that was founded on his deep knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Jewish tradition, his constant reference to God through prayer, and his submission to God’s will in humility. As we face the tests of our lives, these same resources and this same relationship can save us from temptation and deliver us from evil.
(A good background to this and other petitions in The Lord’s Prayer can be found in William Barclay’s book ‘The Plain Man Looks at the Lord’s Prayer’ Fount pb 1964. Jim Cotters version of The Lord’s Prayer can be found in his book ‘Prayer at Night’ 1983 and at http://www.firstparish.org/cms/content/view/452/45/ where you can also find an exegesis of the whole Lord’s Prayer)