‘Lead us not into temptation’: why Pope Francis is wrong about the Lord’s Prayer

EPA-EFE/Fabio Frustaci

‘Lead us not into temptation’: why Pope Francis is wrong about the Lord’s Prayer

Pope Francis recently announced that he thinks the common English translation of the Lord’s Prayer is mistranslated. He is calling for a new version that doesn’t imply that God might lead people into temptation –that, he says, is the Devil’s job. But aside from changing hundreds of years of tradition in the English version of the prayer, is the Pope’s claim that the English misrepresents God an accurate one?

As usual, the Bible itself doesn’t give us a straight answer. Matthew and Luke each have a slightly different version of the prayer that Jesus instructs his followers to emulate. Luke’s version is much shorter, leaving off the request that God “deliver us from evil”. Both Matthew and Luke include in the prayer a hope that God will not lead them into temptation – and, unfortunately for the Pope, translation is not the issue here.

Holy writ: Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. Wikimedia

A quick and very basic look at the grammar of the prayer shows why. In both versions, the prayer starts by invoking God as Father. The rest of the prayer is addressed to God as Father: “Give us daily bread”; “Forgive our trespasses”; and so on. Some requests are made using a form of a Greek imperative verb, a verb that makes a demand – for instance, in the phrase: “Thy kingdom come” the verb “come” is a demand. The same goes for: “Give us this day our daily bread” and “Forgive us our trespasses”. Each example of the imperative verb addresses its demand to the subject of the prayer, God the Father invoked in the initial line.

The next line, about temptation, is not in the imperative, so in some sense the Pope is correct that this verb is different from the others. However, it is still addressed to the subject of the prayer, to God, as a hope or a wish, being in the “you” form of the subjunctive.

In short, the Pope’s declaration that the sentence be changed to “do not let us fall into temptation” does not accurately reflect Jesus’s words in either Gospel. The Bible is clear that God is implicated in both temptation and its avoidance.

Mysterious ways

This leaves the Pope, and many Christians, in the uncomfortable position of acknowledging that in Jesus’s time, divine protectors were not always benevolent. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, as the saying goes. But God also, as the Bible illustrates, frequently works alongside malevolent forces to test or tempt human beings to sin.

William Blake’s depiction of the misfortunes of Job. Wikimedia

A clear example of God testing one of his worshippers is the case of Job, where God actually makes a bet with Satan. Satan hints to God that Job only worships God because of his prosperity and tells God that if Job had nothing he would curse God’s name. God takes Satan up on the bet and allows him to put Job in increasingly awful conditions with the aim of tempting him to curse God’s name. While Satan brings about Job’s misery, it’s clear that God is the true architect of Job’s misfortunes.

Another example comes from Genesis, the familiar story of the Binding of Isaac, where God decides to test Abraham by demanding that he sacrifice his only son. While Genesis isn’t clear about why God tests Abraham’s faith in this way, we know that Jews from around the time of Jesus understood the test to be another incident of Satan and God working behind the scenes to prove a point. The Book of Jubilees describes how Prince Mastema, a Satan-like divine figure, prompts God to tempt Abraham into disobedience by asking him the impossible. Abraham resists temptation and obeys God, but this remains another example of God and Satan colluding to tempt humans into sin.

The Binding of Isaac. Caravaggio

Executive decisions

The New Testament is not immune to this understanding of God – and in fact the Pope’s claim about God’s role in temptation is undermined in the very same Gospels that give us the Lord’s Prayer. Apart from Jesus deliberately telling stories as parables that are difficult to understand in order to mislead people, Matthew’s Gospel also implicates God directly in temptation.

In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit “to be tempted by the devil”. Again, even if the Devil is the instrument of temptation, the Gospel is very clear that God plays an executive role in making Jesus face that temptation. It is only two chapters later in Matthew when Jesus urges his followers to pray that they avoid the same situation, praying to God that he not lead them into temptation as Jesus was led.

Duccio, The Temptation on the Mount. Wikimedia

There are two major issues with Pope Francis’s call to change the Lord’s Prayer. In attempting to remove any implication that God has some hand in evil, the Pope not only overlooks the many biblical examples where God works with Satan to test his followers and even his own son, but he also ignores the plain meaning of the Gospel text. A more consistent understanding of God actually requires that wording, begging God not to lead a worshipper into temptation.

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