Reading: James 1: 12 – 18; Matthew 6: 7 – 15
‘And lead us not into temptation’ – can you explain?
‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ Most of us say this at least once a week, and some of us might say this every day. It is, of course, one of the requests in the Lord’s Prayer – the traditional wording. What we know as the basis for the Lord’s Prayer appears only in Matthew and Luke, and the original Greek for “temptation” is identical in both at this point, although the prayer content itself does differ. But you might have noticed something really curious this morning. When Matthew was reading Matthew’s Gospel – no, he didn’t write it, but we’re not quite sure who did! – and the disciples are asking Jesus how to pray, it isn’t there! We don’t hear ‘lead us not into temptation.’ Instead we hear something rather curious: ‘do not bring us to the time of trial.’ An additional, interesting third version is one from a large collaborative group of eminent Biblical scholars called the Jesus Seminar who say, ‘please don’t subject us to test after test.’ The Greek word used for ‘temptation’ can also be translated as ‘test of character.’
The reason for the difference in translation, and the theological meaning of the word temptation, is really the basis for another sermon by someone who is a vastly better biblical scholar than I am, but the whole idea of why we would pray for God not to lead us into temptation – or not bring us to the time of trial, or subject us to test after test – is a real problem. One Jewish source says that, because the idea of God leading a human into temptation contradicts the righteousness and love of God, ‘Lead us not into temptation’ is not found in the Hebrew scriptures, and thus wouldn’t have been a part of Jesus’ culture.
Temptation, and the frequent failure to resist it, usually gives way to that religiously loaded word ‘SIN’. Lead us not into temptation seems to imply that God is the one who leads humans into sin; but for what purpose? Is it a constant testing to see if we will obey all the commandments and rules which God lays down in the bible? Is that the sort of God we worship, an exacting and hard disciplinarian? Is it maybe that God wants us to give into temptation and sin so that we can then be eternally grateful to God for rescuing us? Perhaps even worse, could this lead further onwards to a theology that we are, at heart, fundamentally sinful; something which I personally don’t subscribe to and which is a very negative view of humanity. Are we so very easily led into temptation and thus sinning that we have to ask the most powerful entity we can think of to spare us this test, a sort of spiritual cop-out? Are we really asking for an easy life?
And it begs the question of why God might want or need to lead us into temptation when we’re so good at giving into it ourselves! Especially when the first reading this morning specifically says ‘No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.’ The letter of James is very clear when it says ‘one is tempted by one’s own desire’. We get ourselves into our own sticky situations, but we’re expected to do our own work in resisting, even if unsuccessful. However, maybe we should ask to be led into temptation from time to time, just to learn how to deal with it.
We pray ‘Lead us not into temptation,’ because we know we can so easily get discouraged in daily disappointments and end up blaming God as a convenient excuse for just about anything which goes wrong. This is where we can ask for help from God; to remind us of what we’re supposed to do when faced with temptation, or a time of trial, or test after test.
Even ‘temptation’ can have very different interpretations. We can, naturally, be tempted to do something which is wrong, either for personal gain or reward or to get ahead in our work world. Or to ignore the need of our neighbours because we don’t have the time or inclination to sacrifice anything of ourselves. We can be tempted to be stingy if we’re blessed with more than we need, or lust after the very attractive neighbour next door, or be envious of anyone who seems to be better off than we are. But…we can also be tempted to do what we might see as good things. How about someone who is tempted to leave home and family, comfort and friends; and to follow a dream, or a vision of what they could do to make the world a better place, more like God wants it to be? Even when the end result might be homelessness, poverty, sleeping rough, total insecurity about the future and even death? Where your trusted friends turn out to be only there when things are going OK? What about the danger of contracting a disease like Ebola because the desire to help out overcomes all rational thought of self-preservation? Please, God, we might pray, lead us not into temptation of this sort because we just don’t know how we would handle it.
Perhaps this particular plea in the Lord’s Prayer comes from Jesus’s own experience right at the start of his ministry. The story in both Matthew and Luke say that the actual temptations come from the Devil, the evil one; but – it was the Spirit who led Jesus out into the wilderness in the first place. Was God bringing Jesus to the time of trial, leading him into experiencing those temptations, to help him sort out what his ministry would be and where his obedience was given? Turn these stones into bread, so that you can feed yourself and also feed everyone in the world. Jump off the Temple, so that everyone will know that God protects people who trust in God alone. No, Jesus says, I may be tempted to do a lot of good in this way but scripture says do not put the Lord your God to the test. Maybe Jesus wanted his followers to pray that God would never ask them to go through the same thing because his own temptations were so severe. As humans, we’re not particularly good at choosing to take the hard road over the easy one. Please, God, don’t lead us there; protect us from the temptation to be tempted, to be tested, to be brought to the time of trial. We might very well give up if we’re given test after test. We might very well give up if we’re given test after test and feel that we’ve failed. Does God think we need to be tempted in order to grow stronger by that experience?
This morning, Edward is being baptised, brought into the family of the Church by water and the Spirit, known and loved and affirmed as a child of God. Nobody can promise that he’ll be free of experiencing temptations. His parents, godparents and friends can hope, pray and work together to try to make his life happy and fulfilling, but nobody can promise him a trouble free life, without stress or hardship or anxiety, and nobody can promise him a successful and affluent life either. But we can pray, and he can learn to pray, that we can ask God for help. ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial’ is maybe a more helpful way to pray that God will guide Edward into knowing what’s right, or the best way to go before he gets to crisis point. ‘Do not subject us to test after test’ can be a prayer that with the help of family and friends he can discover that elusive, slippery thing called ’God’s will’ – something we could call ‘conscience’ – without God having to remind him again and again about the good choices to make.
And at the other end of life, after the service today Emma Belak’s ashes will be buried in our churchyard. Emma was undoubtedly tempted throughout her life, as we all are. And I’m sure that she asked God not to lead her into temptation. But as we all know, her faith and strength was an example to all of us in trusting God and knowing that she would return to God’s light and protection.
Please God, don’t lead us into temptation; don’t let us be led by ourselves, by others, by Satan into the things which get in the way of helping to build your kingdom here and now. But, when temptation comes – as it will – the letter of James says: Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
I don’t know who proposed the sermon topic this morning, but it’s one which many of us undoubtedly have wondered about. Trying to fulfil the request ‘please explain’ is itself a temptation – to provide a comprehensive answer to something which might better stay as something open ended, or a bit of a mystery. And I’ll end by handing over the last word to the ever-so-quotable Oscar Wilde to lighten the topic a bit by saying: ‘I can resist everything…. except temptation.’
©Leslie Spatt 2017