Is it time to change the Lord’s Prayer?
“Do not let me fall into temptation because it is I who fall, it is not God who throws me into temptation and then sees how I fell,”
– Pope Francis I
For many Christians, the ubiquity of the Lord’s Prayer is everything.
Because of that, I used to argue to leave it alone. But I changed my mind. I changed when it was my turn to teach it.
Is something going on with the Lord’s Prayer?
Pope Francis is encouraging Roman Catholics to adopt a new wording of the The Lord’s Prayer (often referred to by it’s first line: Our Father). Well, more accurately, a new old wording.
Francis is encouraging us to see one line from the traditional English version differently.
“Lead us not into temptation.”
The problem with the line isn’t so much that it’s a mistranslation exactly. But what this says about God. It argues that God “induces temptation.” That God sends us down the wrong path.
“I am the one who falls; it’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen.
“A father doesn’t do that, a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation, that’s his department.”
This one line in the English translation of the Lord’s Prayer is one of those which has always been a sticking point for scholars.
So why does it say that?
The problem stems from the English translation from a Latin translation of a Greek prayer.
And a prayer derived from a couple original sources in the gospels with varying wordings. So, like all things Biblical and liturgical, it’s complicated.
This English translation isn’t so much a mistranslation as perhaps a translation which puts a thumb on the scale of how we understand this one word. A word which is far less prescriptive of a God-induced action than many would like. It could suggest that God does lead or test us. Or it could be saying that we are tested.
And we must remember that in terms of church history, English translations are relatively new.
This means that throughout Christian history, people of faith have wrestled with more than just words: but the very nature of God’s place in the world. And the words we’ve inherited have often told us conflicting stories.
That we have the wording we have says less about its theological correctness and more about the willingness of good people of faith to affirm the inherited practices of their tradition.
Should we change it?
I said at the top that I’m up for change and already have. I use the “contemporary” Lord’s Prayer, which uses a different wording here:
“save us from the time of trial”
and it is the same version we use at church. So in our world, this change is a bit moot.
But in light of that, I offer us a series of aspects to consider:
The Bible –
Scripture gives us two different versions in Matthew and Luke. Matthew’s is closer to the one we know. Luke’s is more like what Pope Francis is proposing.
But as I mentioned above, appealing to Scripture goes beyond what it says on this specifically. It goes into the nature of God, and in this case in particular, how Jesus sees God. It is this second reason that I am more compelled to make my own appeal to a God which Jesus calls Abba (a personal, affectionate term, like Daddy).
Most English-speaking churches have been using this (or slight variants of this) same prayer. This would be a stumbling block to unity for some. There is precedent, however, as Lutherans, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics have had ongoing dialogues around liturgy for over half a century.
In my tradition, as in many others, it is perhaps more theoretically troubling than actually so. The Episcopal Church has regularly exercised sound judgment in trying on new liturgical formulations and shifted to the best options from time to time. If there is any piece that more rigidly rejects the change, it comes, not from honest dialogue but from refusing dialogue.
This is the fun part. The traditional english wording sounds Calvinist. Anybody who wants God in control of everything has no trouble with a God leading us into the Wilderness to suffer. But the rest of us hate this idea. It is a complete affront to a God of love.
While many are more moved by Scripture, Tradition, or practical considerations about not wanting to upset the septegenarians, the theological appeal is where Francis’s suggestion is most compelling. And coming from the head of the Roman Catholic Church, it’s hard to say this is untraditional or new.
Here, I am most compelled by the simple question of whether our beliefs actually matter. Do you really care enough about what you believe to make sure your words match? That you are saying what you believe?
I hate to break it to you, but meanings change.
Crazy, I know.
I’m 6’3. In most places I’m kind of tall. For an NBA player, I’d be short. To my kids, I’m a giant. To a Palestinian Jew in the 1st Century, I’d be huge.
We know this, but we don’t relate this to the changing meaning of a statement like this one:
“Lead us not into temptation”
Because we think it’s meaning is absolute and consistent. It’s not! And it gets even worse than that! It doesn’t sound innocent anymore.
Another example. Turning back, just ten years or so, we’d print in our bulletins a handy reminder: Holy Communion is open to all baptized Christians. And it very much felt helpful to people who knew what was going on, who were “hip to the lingo.”
As fewer and fewer people understand the nuance of church politics and interchurch politics, these reminders started to sound less helpful. The full-page announcement at my grandmother-in-law’s funeral explaining why I couldn’t come up to communion didn’t read as helpful. Like, at all.
Words change because their meaning and intention get scrubbed and power-washed.
Even entering into the conversation about what this phrase communicates about God divides the church. Not just liberal and conservative or Catholic and Protestant. But inside denominations and among various theologies with huge differences in describing the nature of God.
What are we trying to say about God?
This should be our first and most important question.
All this other stuff is noise. It’s the stuff that can help push you one way or the other if your votes are tallying “too close to call”.
But the real decision should be on what our prayers to God reveal to us about God.
That’s why I’m taken with the Pope’s suggestion.
The Bible is split and tradition gives us room to change. For most Christians in the world, our theology is closer to the Pope’s on this. And it communicates far more effectively what God is doing.
But if you’re stuck in a congregation that isn’t going to try on the new words for size, there’s always the Prayerhack approach. It could simply be improved with a comma:
“Lead us, not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Or do what I do: blend this line from Luke and the preceding two from Matthew:
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Save us from the time of trial
and deliver us from evil.
Because the point isn’t whether or not God puts you in the mess — the point is that God is with you there. In love.