Temptation of Christ

The Lord’s Prayer: Facing evil, making choices

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — We have come to the final request of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” As Protestant Christians, we are used to the prayer continuing with closing words of praise, “for thine is the Kingdom and the glory, forever.” This ending was probably added by Matthew’s early church in the late part of the first century, and used in their worship time together. Notice on front of the worship bulletin that they are only found in Matthew.

Jesus ended his prayer he taught his followers by focusing on some of the more troubling aspects of our human condition:  temptation, trial, evil. For me, this part of Jesus’ prayer raises difficult questions about why and how we mess up, hurt ourselves, others and the planet; why we sin. Whose responsibility is it to corral and subdue evil in the world? Is it God’s job to get rid of evil? If we are God’s partners in healing God’s worldwide Household, what of this is our job? How does God “keep us from evil; keep our going out and our coming in,” as the Psalmist of our Hebrew scriptures claimed? And what do we mean by evil? A personified devil figure who runs around making trouble? Individual breaches of morality, and defined by who? Or are we talking about bigger systemic evils, like genocide of Native American peoples or the rise of Hitler’s Germany? Slavery of Africans, the Christian crusades of medieval times, the spread of ISIS?   Whew…shall we stop right now and go to brunch? This final part of the Lord’s Prayer is complicated…and hugely important to understanding what Jesus was doing.

“Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” When I was a child, I had a small picture book about the Lord’s Prayer. It was filled with lovely water-color paintings meant to catch a child’s attention; the illustration I remember most clearly went with this passage we are considering today. A late summer scene with trees and lush green grass, and a small group of children starting to climb over a split-rail fence. On the other side of the fence is an apple tree, its leafy branches heavy with ripe red fruit. Ah…forbidden fruit! An angel-type figure is standing next to the children with its arms raised. I could never quite figure this one out. Was the angel trying to stop the kids from the illegal deed of apple stealing? Was the angel enticing them to pick the apples and God was then supposed to stop them? All I remember is some vague notion about God wanting me not to be naughty.

We often assume temptation or trial is just about individual morality. So we pray, “God, help me not eat that extra piece of pie; God, help me stay off those websites that are full of all kinds of virtual temptation.” Sometimes the purpose of Christianity gets reduced to “Preventing Individual Naughtiness.” God becomes “The Great Dispenser of Discipline.” We start to assume we get punished if we are naughty and rewarded if we are nice.

Unfortunately, some people stay stuck reacting to this reward/punishment view through much of their lives, and it ticks them off: “I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do! I’m in control of my own life! I can take care of myself; I’m not dependent on anyone!” And if we do hold onto this view of God as the Great Enforcer of Proper Behavior into adulthood, we end up resenting it at some level.  If our good behavior isn’t rewarded, we may feel unjustly treated in some way.  “Hey, I behaved myself and didn’t get my reward of good health and prosperity!”

We vacillate between wanting to “go it on our own,” and then wondering why God doesn’t intervene and squash all evil. And we end up missing the point of Jesus’ message. We are created to be coworkers, partners, with God in healing the broken world Household of God. To take responsibility for our own behavior and not expect rewards and punishments.

What might have been Jesus’ original meaning here in this part of the prayer? The Greek word in the Lord’s Prayer that is translated as temptation can also mean trial or test. And there is probably no better place to understand what Jesus was talking about here, than to look at the time when Jesus himself was sorely tempted, put to the test: What we call the “temptations in the wilderness,” when Jesus retreated for a time of prayer and fasting right after his baptism in the Jordan River by John at the beginning of his public ministry.

During our Bible study on this passage last Tuesday, one of you noted how “hallucinatory” this story sounded. Dusty, dry isolated terrain; consciousness possibly altered by days of fasting, silence and aloneness. Is this inner dialogue or confrontation with an external evil entity? We are not sure. Jewish mythology had no strong personification of evil, like the devil figure that is vividly depicted in medieval art and literature of the later Christian era. Matthew describes that the tempter puts it to Jesus: “Hey, you must be hungry: doesn’t God provide manna for all? Satisfy your own hunger: Turn these stones into bread.” Jesus and the tempter end up in a war of words, slinging Hebrew Bible passages back and forth. “No?” sneers the tempter. “Well, how about something a little more public; come up to the top of the top pinnacle tower of the Jerusalem Temple and jump and let’s give the folks a display of miraculous power! Hmmm? Okay (continues the tempter) How about dominion over all the world powers? You keep saying the Kingdom of God is at hand! Let’s bring it on, Jesus! Let’s smash these evil human powers and bring God’s righteous reign in by force! Be that warrior leader everyone wants!” Jesus refuses; the tempter departs.
Tempter, devil, evil one – all different translations of a Greek verbal noun comprised of “dia” and “ballo” – meaning “to throw over or across” – or one who attacks, misleads, discredits. And who/whatever this entity is, it has a one-track mind – it’s all about power – “Take it Jesus, it’s yours by right, since you are the Son of God. This is a royal title attributed to the ancient Jewish Davidic line: Be that warrior prince, that Messiah, Jesus! Be who you are!”

Jesus had grown up in Nazareth after a huge military incursion of Roman legions in 4 BC, which brutally squashed violent rebellions among the Jewish people. Roman power continues at this time to oppress the people, demanding excessive taxes, military service, and most repugnant, worshipping Caesar as God. How very tempting to think that more violence might be the answer. Perhaps this is the toughest challenge in this prayer and in Jesus’ teachings: Again and again Jesus will refuse violence as the way to bring in the Kingdom, the Reign, of God.

An aside on sin: There are growing number of Bible scholars who say that humans’ original sin was not the disobedience of eating fruit from a tree in the Garden of Eden. They point to the first time the word “sin” is used in Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament: the Cain and Abel story. These two sons of the mythical Adam and Eve story were strong rivals. Cain ended up killing his brother. In response, God warns, for the first time, of “sin lurking at their door.”  What was the sin? Escalating violence that seeks not just to defend but to retaliate. And escalatory violence was starting to look pretty tempting to many of those under Roman imperial oppression in the first century during Jesus’ time and Jesus knew it was a dead end.

I think of difficult times I have been through in my life, times when I had the choice between depending upon my own limited understanding and human strength, flailing around…or working with God to figure out what God was calling me to next in the middle of the mess. Think of one of your own times of trial and testing in your family or this church’s history. Have we been reactive and destructive as we struggled to cope? There are forms of escalating violence that are damaging even without physical blows. It may be that Jesus turned from following John the Baptist simply because John was preaching a coming of the Kingdom through violence against Rome. This God who arrives imminently will be an avenging presence!

But not so for Jesus. He will command his followers to put away their swords when he is confronted and arrested by Roman soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane. The church in each generation has got to grapple with the implications of Jesus’ call to non-violence. A difficult challenge in a world where evil persists and there are never easy answers or simple solutions.

The curious thing about times of crisis, trial and testing is that while they can break us, they have the curious potential to change us and redefine us. Do I see myself as a passive recipient of God’s rewards and punishments? Do I rely on my own insight and strength? Or do I reach out to God and to others in these challenging times, acknowledging my full membership in God’s family? Do I see my part in the mess; recognize and confess my sins, repent and change my ways? Individual and group character can be tempered and shaped in such times.

For some reason, God has placed us in a world that is both beautiful and dangerous, good and evil, and filled with wonder and resources and unpredictability. This is our life. Where will we each face temptation this week?  Be on the alert. Know that we are free to work with God, to resist evil, to help heal the world and delight in it together. And so we are urged to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Amen.