Saturday, December 9, 2017

Pope Francis and changing the Lord's Prayer

Pope Francis has announced to the Roman Catholic Church that they have been praying the Lord's Prayer wrong. (Catholics call the prayer the "Our Father," after the first two words of the prayer.)

Francis wants to re-word the phrase, "And lead us not into temptation," because it implies that God might lead us into temptation if God wanted. And as we all know, temptation is bad. Francis suggests that Catholics pray instead, "Do not let us enter into temptation".

Actually, both the traditional phrasing and Francis' rewording miss the point.

Matthew and Luke to do not agree exactly on the words of the prayer. In Matthew 6, the prayer is thus (New Revised Standard Version):
9  Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name.
10     Your kingdom come.
    Your will be done,
        on earth as it is in heaven.
11     Give us this day our daily bread.[c]
12     And forgive us our debts,
        as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13   And do not bring us to the time of trial,[d]
        but rescue us from the evil one.[e]
The brackets are footnotes:
c. Or our bread for tomorrow 
d. Or us into temptation
e. Or from evil. Other ancient authorities add, in some form, For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen.
Luke puts it this way, a somewhat shorter prayer:
Father,[a] hallowed be your name.
    Your kingdom come.[b]
3     Give us each day our daily bread.[c]
4     And forgive us our sins,
        for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
    And do not bring us to the time of trial.”[d]
The footnotes are:
a. Other ancient authorities read Our Father in heaven 
b. A few ancient authorities read Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us. Other ancient authorities add Your will be done, on earth as in heaven 
c Or our bread for tomorrow 
d. Or us into temptation. Other ancient authorities add but rescue us from the evil one (or from evil)
Note that the NRSV, a very recent translation (as translations go) does not use "temptation" at all. Why?

In Greek, the expression is καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς εἰς πειρασμόν, pronounced kye mē eisenenkēs hēmas eis peirasmon. The last word, peirasmon, does mean temptation and is used to mean that elsewhere in the Gospels. But the NRSV is correct not to use it here. 

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is teaching his disciples what to expect for the rest of their lives as they follow his will: opposition, including lethal opposition. Jesus has already used peirasmon to mean "trial" in the prarable of the sower who went out to sow in Luke 8: the seeds that fall on the rock are those who “have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing (peirasmou) fall away.”

In teaching the disciples the Lord's prayer, Jesus is instructing them what to rely on as the build the Kingdom of God from its inception:

  • God is as close as a father. God is a person, not an impersonal influence.
  • God will provide for their essential needs
  • God will forgive their missteps and sins along the way, but they must be forgiving of others, too.
  • Pray for your work to be done before the time of trial.
  • But trust God to protect them from the demonic powers opposing them.
What is the time of trial?

Luke 4 relates that just after Jesus was baptized by John, he "was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil." There, for "tempted," is that pesky word peirasmon again. This time in the desert was a defining time for Jesus, for the temptations show that at stake was whether Jesus would be faithful to his identity, which Luke has just explained was announced by God, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3.22). 

In the desert, Jesus cannot both affirm his co-identity with God and yield to Satan's three lures, to care for himself, Jesus, first; to worship Satan, not God; and to test God's ability to save. These are not mere temptations. They are very serious trials for a famished and fatigued Jesus to endure. At stake here is whether Jesus will stay the course, or not.

This is probably the kind of forecast Jesus is warning his disciples about. True, Jesus may be referring in saying "the time of trial" to the end of the age, when he will return to place everything under his feet. But I don't think so. I think Jesus is saying, if I may paraphrase, "Pray that the work God places before you will be done before you face the ultimate temptation, which will be a great trial for you: whether to denounce me and leave the calling I will place before you, to go into the world and make disciples." 

This is not a certain reading, of course. But it's worth noting that Jesus also told his disciples that while they were accepting even death for following him ("Take up your cross and follow me"), even death was not the ultimate trial. Persecution, torture, execution are not trials in themselves, they are admittedly-horrific potential consequences of following Christ. No, the trial in the Our Father prayer is that which leads to abandonment of the Way, to exit the path that Jesus has already trod. The trial is spiritual, not physical-temporal, and Jesus promises elsewhere (i.e., Matt. 24.9-14; Mk. 13.9-13) that those who endure the time of trial without falling away will be saved. 

The apostle James reinforced this point, writing "Blessed are those who remain steadfast under trial (peirasmon), for when they have stood the test they will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him." Peter wrote, "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial (peirasmon) when it comes upon you to test you…. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings ..." (James 1.12, 1 Peter 12.13). 

So how to render this troublesome phrase, "lead us not into temptation"? By folding it into the greater theme of the whole prayer. If I were Pope, I'd offer this:

Our Father in heaven,
    your name is holy always. 
Bring forth your kingdom.
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us each day what we need. 
And forgive us our sins,
    as we also have forgiven those have sinned against us.
And do not bring us to the time of defining trial,
    but rescue us from those who oppose you.

This is more paraphrased than I would like. The challenge in translating biblical texts (or any foreign-language texts) is always to translate as succinctly as possible, to stay as true to the original text as one can. But that does risk losing nuance and context, which the author simply assumed the readers would already know. 

By the way, Holy Father, I am available for consultation for a very reasonable fee!

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