The Lord’s Prayer

Adult Forum Lenten Prayer Series 2021
#1 with David Brown

The Lord’s Prayer—Jesus’ teaching about praying

From the early days of Christianity the Lord’s Prayer has been a central feature of public worship and private devotions—as befits a prayer Jesus himself taught to his disciples. The prayer presents a number of issues of translation and interpretation, but one in particular has been a source of pastoral problems for church leaders since the early days of Christianity: How should we understand the petition, “Lead us not into temptation”?  After a short historical summary, this will be our focus.  Questions for discussion appear at the end.

A very brief history of the Lord’s Prayer.  
Where does it come from?  The form we use is found at Matthew 6:5-15.  (A briefer, earlier version is at Luke 11:2-4.)  Here is the translation in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which is regarded as closest to the koine Greek in which Matthew was written:

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
    On earth as it is in heaven.
 Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts,
    As we also have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
    But deliver us from evil [or the evil one].

Most scholars roughly agree on the following: Jesus probably spoke Aramaic, the common language of the region. His sayings were remembered in Jewish Christian communities, translated into Greek, and compiled into collections.  The Lord’s Prayer was included in a collection known as Q.  The Gospel of Matthew was composed sometime between the years 70 and 100, probably between 80 and 90.  The anonymous author was not an eyewitness to Jesus’ preaching (not the disciple Matthew).  His sources were Mark’s gospel, stories and sayings that were circulating among the Greek-speaking Christian communities (including Q), and material the author composed himself.  He wrote for the people of his community, but it was not long before his gospel and others were circulating widely in the Greek-speaking world. Translation issues would have arisen almost immediately and would have given rise to questions of interpretation.  Some of these continue to be vigorously debated today. 

The Lord’s Prayer, because it was the “Lord’s prayer,” soon became a customary part of Christian liturgy and private devotions.  A version similar to Matthew’s is found in a manual of church practice, known as the Didache (teaching), dating from around 100 CE:  

“Your prayers . . . should be different from theirs [the Jew’s]. Pray as the Lord enjoined in His Gospel, thus: Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, As in heaven, so on earth; Give us this day our daily bread, And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from the Evil One, For thine is the power and the glory forever and ever.  Say this prayer three times every day.” 

Jesus’ instructions about praying.  
According to Matthew’s account, Jesus first gives instructions to his disciples on howthey should pray: (1) Avoid individual, ostentatious praying in public (the Jews (Pharisees) do this), rather pray in private, and (2) Don’t indulge in lengthy, overly elaborate prayers (the Gentiles (pagans) do this), because “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Why pray then, you might ask? This is a question for another discussion.

Then Jesus commands, “Pray then like this: [The Lord’s Prayer follows.]” Does this mean that we should pray the prayer word for word, as the Didache suggests? Or is the prayer a set of topics around which we elaborate more specifics?  Both views continue to be held.  Both may be correct.  How often should the prayer be prayed?  Daily?  Three times a day as the Didache prescribes?

Some questions about the Lord’s Prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer begins by addressing God as “Our Father.”  This suggests radical intimacy with God and brotherhood with Christ, who addressed God as “Abba.”  But it continues “who are in heaven, hallowed be your name.”  This suggests radical metaphysical separation and theological distinction between divine and human spheres.  The tension here rises to the level of paradox.  Perhaps both must be held in our consciousness at the same time.  And to whom does “our” refer?  Those physically present with us?  All everywhere who are now praying the Lord’s Prayer (or any prayer to God)?  To all Christians?  From the perspective of eternity, all who have ever prayed, are now praying, or will in the future pray the prayer?  Perhaps in accord with our liturgy, we pray “With Angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.”

There follow two sets of three petitions each:  The first set, relating to God’s status and power, can be understood as introduced by “May.”  May your name be honored in the highest, may your kingdom come, may your will be done.  These have been understood as requests that God bring these things about, as well as a reminder that we have a role in that endeavor.  The second set are petitions relating directly to us: give us our daily bread, forgive us our debts, and lead us not into temptation. 

Lead us not into temptation.  
Each of these petitions presents interpretive issues, but the last has been a hot topic since late antiquity at least.  Concern that this petition might be understood to mean that God leads us into temptation then punishes us for succumbing goes back at least as far as Augustine.  Apparently, this language was creating pastoral problems in the Latin-speaking church in North Africa where he was a bishop.  (Yet another translation issue.) Sometime around the year 400 CE he wrote a sermon on the Lord’s Prayer that contained a long paragraph discussing the meaning of “lead us not into temptation.”  Augustine begins by quoting James 1:13-14, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God.”  Emphatically, he continues, “With that kind of temptation, whereby we are deceived and seduced, God tempts no man.”  On the other hand, Augustine recognizes that life is full of temptations, and he believes God does test us, but only so that we may come to know whether we love God—not that God would learn anything, for he knows us very well.  Having that knowledge, our responsibility is to resist, with God’s help, our sinful desires and grow in love of God.  Nonetheless, God does abandon some to their own desires, and lacking God’s help, they fall prey to the devil.  “Therefore that He may not abandon us, do we say, Lead us not into temptation.”

In the 20th century we have C.S. Lewis on this topic.  In his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, he writes, “I was never worried myself by the words lead us not into temptation, but a great many of my correspondents are.  The words suggest to them what someone has called ‘a fiend-like conception of God,’ as one who first forbids us certain fruits and then lures us to taste them.  But the Greek word means ‘trial’– ‘trying circumstances’– of every sort; a far larger word than the English ‘temptation.’  So that the petition essentially is ‘make straight our paths. Spare us, where possible, from all crises, whether of temptation or affliction.’”  For those for whom Augustine is too strong medicine, Lewis may go down more easily.  But the translational and interpretive issues are more complex than he suggests.

For Episcopalians in the US, the problem of the temptation language was addressed in a typically Episcopalian way in the 1979 Prayer Book by providing, in addition to a “traditional-language version,” a “contemporary-language version” of the Lord’s Prayer, which substitutes for the temptation language: “Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.” (The Holy Eucharist: Right Two, p.364) Though the contemporary version is of equal dignity with the traditional, until recently relatively few churches have used it.  That is changing, and Redeemer’s liturgy now occasionally uses the contemporary language.  Apparently the temptation language remains problematic for some Episcopalians.

The Episcopal Church USA is not alone in facing such pastoral problems.  The Roman Catholic Church is also having to deal with translations that, in many languages, read like “lead us not into temptation.”  About three years ago, Pope Francis said that he did not think that this wording captured the meaning intended.  He proposed that translations of the Latin into the vernacular read more like “do not let us fall into temptation.”  This was the translation being used in the churches in many Spanish-speaking countries.  The Pope emphasized that he was not proposing any change to the official Latin Bible (the “Vulgate”) and the national bishops’ conferences were free to use wording based on either version. The French and Italian bishops have chosen to use the new wording. The French reads something like “Don’t let us go into temptation.” The Italian reads more like “do not abandon us to temptation.” However, the German bishops have declined the Pope’s suggestion, citing strong “philosophical, exegetical, liturgical and, not least, ecumenical” reasons to leave the present wording unchanged.

Representative English Translations from the Greek

  • And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil [Or the evil one]. King James Version, Revised Standard Version (1952), New International Version (1973). 
  • And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. New Revised Standard Version (1989).
  • Don’t bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. The Living Bible (1971).
  • And don’t lead us into temptation, but rescue us from the evil one. Common English Bible (2011).
  • Keep us clear of temptation, and save us from evil. Phillips New Testament (1958).
  • And do not put us to the test, but save us from the Evil One. New Jerusalem Bible (1985, 1990 Roman Catholic), Revised English Bible (UK English 1989).
  • 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. New Zealand Prayer Book (1989).

Odds and ends
The Greek πειραζω is the word translated as test (testing) or temptation in English versions of Lord’s Prayer.  The same word appears in translations of the Lukan parallel (“do not bring us to the time of trial”) (Lk 11:4). Cognates of πειραζω are used with respect to the temptation or testing of Jesus by Satan (Mt 4:1; Lk 4:2).  Elsewhere the word is translated as “pressure” or “pressured.”

Discussion questions

  1. Does the temptation language cause difficulties for you?  Why?
  2. Does “save us from the time of trial” in the 1979 Prayer Book help?  Why?
  3. Is any one of the English translations better than any of the others?  Why?
  4. Given what you know of Jesus’ life and teaching, what would be a good translation?  Why?