A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Lead us not into temptation

Fr Merv Duffy sm

by Fr Merv Duffy sm

A regular reader of the Messenger has asked for an explanation of the final petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the new (old) translation.

“Lead us not into temptation”

Those who had been using the ELLC text of the Our Father were accustomed to praying:

“Save us from the time of trial”

Both of these are translations of the Latin:

“ne nos inducas in tentationem”

which is a translation of the phrase in the Greek found in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels. The key word is the Greek ‘peirasmos’, which is translated as ‘temptation’, ‘testing’ or ‘trial’. The reader’s concern is that this wording seems to indicate that God usually does lead us into temptation us and we are praying that he stop doing so.

The normal biblical understanding of temptation is that it is the work of the Devil. The Temptations of Jesus in the desert are a classic example (Matthew 4). Interestingly, the second temptation of Jesus is to put God to the test (i.e. tempt God) by Jesus throwing himself down from the parapet of the Temple. As Jesus points out, the book of Deuteronomy forbids putting “the Lord your God to the test.” Humans ought not to test/tempt God!

A clear teaching can be found in the letter of James (1:13):

No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.

In the same letter (1:2-3) James writes of sufferings for the sake of the gospel as a test of faith. God may not send them, but trials will certainly come. James understands that there are things which God permits as opposed to actively wants. God wants us to be free, so he will allow us to do evil, even though God does not want us to do evil. God does not tempt us, but God does permit us to be tempted.

So, if we are not praying that God stop tempting us, what are we asking?

Jesus, like John the Baptist, was recognised as a prophet by the people of his own time. One aspect of first century prophetic preaching was the apocalyptic proclamation of the End Times. Jesus has many parables about the imminent Day of the Lord. Many trials and tribulations are expected when the End comes. The Book of Revelation has this text which it presents as the testimony of Jesus Christ (3:10):

“Because you have kept my plea to stand fast, I will keep you safe in the time of trial which is coming on the whole world, to test all men on earth.”

This verse influenced the interpretive translation used in the ELLC text of the Lord’s Prayer. A period of suffering and disasters is ahead and we pray to God to save us from that. So, one good answer to the question of what is signified by “Lead us not into temptation” is that it means “Save us from the time of trial.”

We can also make the sense of the petition clearer when we, with James, recognize that God does not tempt us to evil.

“LORD, do not let us be led (by ourselves, by others, by Satan) into temptations”

A key part of the Christian message is that we are weak and fallible. We cannot earn heaven on our own merits. We do need to be saved. We want to do God’s will but we know that we need help. That help can lead us to virtue (thy will be done) and away from trouble (Lead us not into temptation).

The words of the Lord’s Prayer are not a magical formula which we have to get exactly right to have it work. We pray these words because Jesus taught them to his disciples. In the Church they have been prayed in a variety of languages and forms. The deepest answer to what do we intend when we say them is “we mean by these words what Jesus meant.”.

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