Lead us not up the creek without a paddle


It struck me that yesterday’s gospel goes some way to disagreeing with Pope Francis. Shortly before Christmas he was widely reported as saying that the line of the Lord’s Prayer “Lead us not into temptation” was a poor translation.

Father Marco Pozza told the pope that friends have asked him, “Can God really lead us into temptation?”
“This is not a good translation,” the pope said. …

Francis told Father Pozza, “I’m the one who falls. But it’s not (God) who pushes me into temptation to see how I fall. No, a father does not do this. A father helps us up immediately.”

There was a flurry of publicity and some immediate pushback.

Of course, Pope Francis is not the first person to have taken this line. Typically, biblical criticism has often interpreted the prayer in the light of an eschatological time of testing and judgement. In that light, earlier liturgical revisions in the English speaking world went the same way as the Pope.  The 1973 Church of England Series Three revisions had “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” The official Methodist Church provision (and an ecumenically minded alternate text in Common Worship) has “Save us from the time of trial”.

There are three very early versions of the Lord’s Prayer, in Matthew’s Gospel, Luke’s Gospel, and the Didache. This line is one of the few places where the text of all three agrees:

καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν / kai mē eisenenkēs ēmas eis peirasmon (Mt 6:13, Lk 11:4, Did 8:2)

The Series Three text is certainly a possible translation, but liturgically “do not bring us to the time of trial” is more likely to trip the tongue up than trip off the tongue. There’s very little justification for the translation “save us from the time of trial”. On the other hand, the time-honoured “Lead us not into temptation” going back at least to Tyndale, remains a good translation.

And, finally to get to the point, it seems to me that it is backed up by the very abbreviated temptation narrative in today’s Gospel reading from St Mark.

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:12-13 NRSV)

The tempting, or testing, remains the work of Satan, but the Spirit leads – the text’s word “drives” or “casts out” is stronger – Jesus into the place where it will happen.

In a nutshell, Jesus’ vocation, as hinted at in these verses, is to recapitulate the human situation. Adam and Eve were in the garden with the wild animals, were tempted by the serpent, and fell. Jesus is now in the wilderness human sin has made of the garden, still with the wild animals, and tested by the Satan, but does not fall. (The same word for wild animals is used in the Greek version of Genesis 2 & 3 as in Mark’s gospel.)

As Pope Francis says, God does not directly tempt people. However, here God calls Jesus to a particular vocation, and to fulfil that vocation it is necessary that he is tested, tempted to stray from it, so that he can learn how to be faithful to it. Mark is here, and in the Garden of Gethsemane, enacting the same theology we find in the letter to the Hebrews.

Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. (Hebrews 2:17-18 NRSV)

It seems also to chime with the experience of Christians down the ages, not simply those of us who know we’re not very good at being Christian, but those whom we look up to as the saints and heroes of the faith. Following God’s calling leads them (us) into places in which they (we) are tempted.

That is why the Church’s liturgical tradition (probably already embedded in the text) has gone with Matthew and the Didache, rather than Luke’s literary purposes, in following the line “Lead us not into temptation” with its necessary accompaniment: “but deliver us from evil.”

God’s calling may well (we all hope it will not) lead us where we find it very hard to be. Then we may only pray for the strength to be faithful to God’s calling.

“Lead us not up shit creek, O Lord, but please let there be paddles.”