Sermon for September 20th, 2015
1He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins,for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
7When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
Teach Us To Pray: Temptation and Evil
A driver, parking her car illegally, tucked a note under her windshield wiper and ran off. The note said "I've circled the block for 20 minutes. I'm late for an appointment, and if I don't park here I'll lose my job. Matthew 6:12. Forgive us our trespasses." Much later, when she returned, she found her note replaced with a parking ticket, upon which was written this note: "I've circled the block for 20 years, and if I don't give you a ticket, I'll lose my job. Matthew 6:13. Lead us not into temptation."
Today we come to the fifth and final part of the Lord's prayer, although not the last sermon in our series. Next week, Michael Simants will wrap things up for us with another fresh perspective on prayer and its place in our lives and our worship.
"Do not bring us to the time of trial," says the gospel of Luke in the NRSV translation. Matthew's version (again in the NRSV) is characteristically longer: "Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one." And the version that we recite each Sunday in worship is yet even more different: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
Bring us...lead us...not too much difference there. But while the NRSV is usually a pretty good modern translation, in this case, "the time of trial" is not a very accurate translation. There are other places in the gospels where Jesus refers to a specific καιρῷ πειρασμοῦ or "time of trial" and likely the translators of the NRSV are assuming that's what Jesus means here. But in both Matthew and Luke, the "time" word, καιρός, is absent, and I think that's intentional. Jesus is giving his disciples a model prayer, and so it is general, rather than specific. It applies to all times, not specific ones.
The liturgical version, the one we use every Sunday in worship gets it right: Lead us not into temptation. πειρασμός can mean either trial or temptation, or testing. It's important to note that the prayer doesn't say, "Don't tempt us, God." God is not the one creating the temptation. The idea here is that we're asking God not to lead us--or allow us--into a situation where our own choices might prove disastrous. We're pretty good at producing temptation all on our own. That's a key distinction to remember as we move into the next part of the prayer, deliver us from evil. Or, as the NRSV puts it, "Rescue us from the evil one."
Here again, I have to disagree with the NRSV translation. There is no "evil one" in the Greek, τοῦ πονηροῦ, just "the evil." It could be argued that "one" is implied, and Greek rules of grammar do allow for this. But it could just as easily (and more logically) be implied "rescue us from the evil ones," as in "rescue us from all the evil people in this world" and there are indeed places elsewhere in the bible where τοῦ πονηροῦ is translated that way.
But why does this matter? Am I nitpicking here?
There is a trend in modern, fundamentalist readings of the Bible to emphasize Satan, or the Devil, as a real, actual living, breathing person or spiritual being, pitchfork in hand, standing on one of your shoulders with an angel on the other one, locked in eternal combat for your soul.
To be fair, the "character" of Satan or the Devil goes way back, through the middle ages, right back to the time of Jesus himself and long before. And superstitious people in every age have tended to perceive this character in the most literal sense possible, along with all sorts of ghosts, demons and nightmare creatures. But the most highly regarded theologians in every age, ancient and medieval included, have emphasized the metaphorical nature of the character as a personification of evil, much in the same way that we imagine "Justice" as a blindfolded woman holding scales, or "Liberty" as a proud woman holding a torch aloft.
Saint Augustine--the greatest theologian of the first millenium (and the favorite theologian of both Protestants and Catholics) went so far as to say that evil itself was not a person or even a thing...it was simply the absence of the good, the absence of God.
Likewise, there is an anceint Jewish tradition from the time of the Old Testament that views Satan as simply one aspect of God's personality--the skeptical aspect (the aspect which says, "I like this Job guy, but maybe his faith is only skin deep. Let's find out!). In the gospels, the only time the Devil appears to tempt Jesus is when Jesus is all by himself, in the wilderness. This lends itself to the idea that the Devil is intended to represent or personify that same aspect of Jesus' personality--the skeptical aspect which (perhaps wisely) asks the question, "Are you sure you really want to go through with this whole messiah thing?"
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Or the evil one. Or the evil ones. Perhaps it doesn't matter too much. There is a famous line from Walt Kelley's comic strip, Pogo: "We have met the enemy...and he is us." Or if that doesn't work, there's a bumper sticker that reads "Lord...save me from your people."
Whether the evil comes from me, or you, or all of us, Jesus prayer is that we might be rescued, delivered, saved from it. And that brings us to the final letter in our acronym, FRESH. The "H" stands for our final, desperate plea: Help us. Please help us. This is actually the part we're really good at; the part that actually occupies most of our prayers, and the place we usually want to start:
Lead us not into failure on today's test, but deliver us from our decision to stay out late last night. Lead us not into sickness and disease, but deliver us from the unhealthy things with which we have polluted the earth. Lead us not into warfare and violence, but deliver us from greed and lust for power that pits us against our neighbor.
The radical call to action in this part of the prayer, is of course, to recognize the mess we have gotten ourselves into, and to admit we're going to need help getting out--help from God, and help from each other.
So this is how we pray, a FRESH take on the Lord's prayer:
F is for First--putting God first in our prayers. R is for Really big things--praying for the world and everything in it. E is for Everyday things--asking and thanking God for simple things like food, water, shelter, love. S is for Sorry--we're sorry and we need forgiveness, from God and each other. H is for Help--Please help us, and help us to help each other.
Praying this way puts things in the right order, and puts us in the right frame of mind to finally get to that last part where we lay all of our greatest desires and fears on the table, seeking God's help. Praying this way also helps us to avoid exactly what Jesus warns his disciples about in the beginning of today's passage from Matthew: "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do."
Some versions of the Bible translate this as "meaningless repetitions." I've often wondered what Jesus would think about us repeating the prayer he taught us word for word by memory in unison every Sunday, especially if it fails to shape or influence our other prayers in any way.
John Smyth, a 17th century minister and founder of the Baptist denomination, put it this way: "I had rather speak five words to God in prayer from understanding, faith and feeling, than say the Lord's Prayer over a thousand times ignorantly, negligently or superstitiously."
I like even better the words of our own founder, John Calvin, who wrote that "...we are not so bound by this form of prayer that we are not allowed to change it in either word or syllable'; all our prayers should, nonetheless, be tested by what is included `by way of summary' in this prayer."
In other words, we let our prayers flow freely from the pattern and example of the Lord's prayer, but then we always come back to it as a summary and a checklist. It's a circular pattern.
There's one more piece to the Lord's prayer that I want to mention, and that's the doxology we say at the end: For thine is the kingdom and the power, and the glory forever, Amen. This part is not actually in the Bible, in either the gospel of Matthew or Luke, but it does appear in some early manuscripts and service books for Christian worship, so it is a pretty ancient tradition of the church.
It is also circular. It takes us right back to where we started, with God and with God's kingdom. If you remember the Ferris wheel analogy I used early in this series, this completes the circle--the movement of the Lord's prayer goes up to the heavens, then down to the earth, and back up again; from cosmic to personal, then cosmic again, and the wheel goes round and round, in a circle that represents both perfection...and eternity. Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory...forever.
Jesus tells us that God knows what we need before we ask him...so why do we ask? It's not to make God aware of what's going on, nor is it to change God's mind or to increase our chances of getting what we want.
When we pray (especially when we pray with the Lord's prayer as our example) we get on the Ferris wheel, we step into that perfect, eternal cycle and for just a little while--our thoughts, our actions, our hearts, are all aligned with God's--moving in the same direction, rising and falling together, helping us to see and experience the world...ourselves...and each other...in a divine, heavenly way.
Speaking of ferris wheels...did you hear the one about the plane that crashed into a ferris wheel?
The say the pilot is slowly coming around.
People of First Presbyterian Church: May your prayers be FRESH and true; and may you always come around and around again in the presence of the Lord.