I don’t know how anyone could approach this prayer as a whole, but especially this petition without the context and insights offered by John Dominic Crossan in his brilliant book The Greatest Prayer (Harper One, 2010).
Primary Text: Matthew 6:7-15 Also Matthew 3:16-4:11
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
Or as the more familiar King James version reads:
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
This section is probably the most perplexing of the petitions in Jesus’ model prayer.
Much of the rest of the prayer can be understood with a very surface level reading, or at least makes sense in light of teachings we are more familiar with in the gospels.
When we pray this prayer together, we call out to God as our shared Father, a reminder that we are brothers and sisters of Jesus the Christ. We remember that we have a relationship with God, on a first-name basis, so to speak. But we also remember that God is God – holy, set apart. That while we are welcome to call on God by name, we are not to take that relationship lightly, nor to use God’s name flippantly.
In our prayer, we seek from God an experience of creation as it was meant to be, a peaceable kingdom under the rule of the one who Created and then set the world in motion, a Kingdom under the care of the Prince of Peace.
As we go deeper into the prayer, we ask God for the food we need, trusting that God will provide for our physical needs here and now, and that we will be fed spiritually as we learn to forgive others in the same way that God offers grace to us.
And then we come to this petition: Do not bring us to the time of trial. Rescue us from the evil one.
It’s a little tricky, risky even, to bring the words of Jesus, a Jewish rabbi who walked the earth 20 centuries ago up to current times. We’re already taking them from an ancient Greek text and translating them into English, which has its limitations as a language. Then there are the geographic and technological differences.
Most of us -including me – aren’t familiar enough with the Jewish traditions in which Jesus was raised to pick up on the nuances of the theological shifts he was making in his teachings, at least not without doing some research.
Our individually-focused American culture makes it hard to understand the collective language and community-oriented culture that permeates the commands and expectations of the faithful that we receive through scriptures.
And, we generally read our history from the perspective of the victor, the dominant force.
For instance, the history of the western world generally starts with the Roman Empire, definitely not that of the people who were subjugated by Rome in the Mediterranean or across Europe and northern Africa. In fact, it always catches me by surprise to think of the Apostles going to Rome… seeing the aqueducts, traveling on the Roman roads that I read so much about… But the truth is that Rome wasn’t some far-off concept for first-century Jews.
The empire was about the business of keeping people under their thumb by whatever means were necessary, including the people in the region where Jesus was born, grew up, taught and was executed.
I offer all this by way of introduction today because unless we improve the lens through which we read this portion of Jesus’ model prayer, unless we have at least some sense of the historical and cultural context in which Jesus offered these words, our modern applications of its teachings become so shallow as to be meaningless.
If we could jump into a time machine, a faith-powered TARDIS, if you will, and point it to the decade or so before the birth of Jesus in Nazareth, we would be landing in a very dangerous time. Following the death of Herod the Great, bands of rebels had taken up arms and were engaging in small battles across the region.
There was a significant Roman presence in the capital city of the Galilee, Sepphoris. A rebel named Judas gathered a large number of men and led an assault on the royal palace in Sepphoris, where they took weapons and stole back all sorts of seized property which they then redistributed – Robin Hood-like to other rebels.
There was no permanent military presence in Israel at the time, so to quash the rebellion, Rome would have to make a calculated risk, pulling men from their posts on another border. If you’re thinking Rome would need to work quickly in Galilee to avoid tempting enemies on the border, you get bonus points.
Two legions arrived, ready for a campaign of “shock and awe” or Sword and Blood. The leaders of this massive army made clear that they would teach the rebels and the whole region that produced them a lesson that would last at least 2 generations.
They marched into Sepphoris with at least 12,000 troops – ELITE troops- along 2000 cavalry soldiers and 1500 infantry. An Arab ally arrived with additional resources. Varus, the commander, split his forces, knowing they would still overpower everyone they encountered. Half of his men went to Jerusalem, with the others fighting against the rural Galileans.
They were relentless, gutting the capital city of Sepphoris and razing the surrounding villages. Nazareth – where Joseph worked as a carpenter – was a tiny village about 4-5 miles away. While Nazareth is not mentioned by name in the surviving documents containing Roman and Jewish historical accounts, we know the fate of other villages of similar size in the region.
Here’s an excerpt from one such collection called Jewish Antiquities.
They [the Romans and their Arab allies] encamped near a village called Arous sacked by the Arabs. Thence Varus advanced to Sappho [in Judea], another fortified village, which they likewise sacked, as well as the neighboring villages which they encountered on their march. The whole district became a scene of fire and blood and nothing was safe against the ravage of the Arabs. Emmaus, the inhabitants of which had fled, was burnt to the ground by the orders of Varus.
Whether overrun by Romans or Arabs, the sacking was complete
Grain, produce and livestock – Taken
Houses, farms, fruit trees – destroyed
Men were killed, women raped and young people enslaved.
Those who survived and somehow fled found themselves living as refugees of political violence. Those who stayed – they gathered what little was left, bringing home as many extended family members as were nearby and grafting in those who were widowed, orphaned or otherwise left behind.
Children like Jesus, born into this region in the years after the occupation would surely have heard the stories being told and retold. It would have become part of the local language and lore.
As my friends in New Orleans and around the gulf coast would attest, traumatic events can cause a shift in the way we mark time. For them, every life event is placed in relation to Katrina. For New York City especially, September 11, 2001, marks the beginning and end of an era. No doubt, Jesus would have heard elders in his community telling stories that used the sacking of Nazareth or Sepphoris as the time stamp.
Zealots remained active, though not nearly as boldly or broadly as before. The Military incursion had done its job, it would be another 60 years before an invasion of this size would be necessary to tamp down violent resistors.
In the meantime, the Jews would engage in non-violent resistance.
Leaders of the synagogues and temples aligned themselves with Roman leaders, hoping to influence them, align them, “change things from the inside” as much as any outsider could. Communities rebuilt and redoubled their efforts to be unified, watching out for one another, sharing what little resources they still had. And they focused on being a distinct culture that was in opposition to the culture of Rome. Not just in protest, but truly being the opposite of the Empire. The laws of the Torah, the calls to justice and mercy, the commands to forgive… all set the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob apart.
It was into this culture, this history, that Jesus was born
It was among these rabbis, in this extended family that Jesus was raised to manhood in faith.
It was into this culture, where the laws of God were enforced by men who counted on the law to save them from harm in this life, that the fully divine Jesus taught the people about the heart behind the rules.
Jesus teaches his people to pray lead us not into temptation.
But more specifically, he is teaching them to pray
Lead us not into the temptation of violent resistance to Rome’s oppression.
Deliver us from the acts of the evil one
The one on the throne who seeks to do us evil
The evil one who would have us join in the chaos by repaying evil for evil
This feels to me like the best explanation for something that makes very little sense on the surface. It seems odd that God would lead us into temptation… so why would we need to ask God not to?
We see God leading people from so very early on in the relationship between humans and God- God leads us with words, just as clearly as with clouds of fire, God leads with prophets, kings and teachers. It’s not as if God is in the business of leading people into temptation.
Except that one time… Listen to these words from a little earlier in Matthew’s Gospel…
16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
God is pleased with Jesus getting baptized in obedience to God’s call. Now listen closely to what happens next:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
Biblical Scholar John Dominic Crossan points out the importance of this sentence that lays out the sequence of events. Notice…, he says, that Jesus is “led by the Spirit – to be tempted – by the devil. It is God, as in the Abba Prayer, who brings Jesus to the time of trial. (Crossan, The Greatest Prayer, 170)
God brings Jesus to the time of trial, of temptations, so that as we face our own times of trial, we have an advocate who understands and speaks to God on our behalf, inhabiting our own prayers.
Jesus was weak – or at the very least must have been getting hangry – as the temptations come at him.
He [Jesus] fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
This was a personal temptation – literally saying, you have more than enough power, miraculous power, to take care of your own hunger. Why not? And yet, Jesus knows that his divine power was not to be used for personal comfort, but for the work of God among the people of God. So he responds using the words in Deuteronomy 8:3
But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
The tempter builds on Jesus’ response, going to Scripture himself. He cites Psalm 91:11-12, tempting Jesus with a public display of God’s power, since the personal display was not enough to draw him in.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus sees that this situation goes beyond him to test God – Would God protect Jesus, if the Son were to take this opportunity to prove his identity in a public way?
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
The third temptation starts with the assumption that Jesus is who he claims to be. No longer will the challenge be about his identity as the Son of God. And there is no pretense of religiosity here, no scripture quoted.
The tempter goes straight to the desires of most human hearts – and right to the antithesis of Jesus’ purpose here on Earth.
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Jesus has been offered all the glory and power of the Kingdoms of the World. All in exchange for worship. This rule, this domination over multiple peoples and lands, is precisely the sort of rule that the Roman Emperors had built over the years, expanding their borders ever farther, sending legions of soldiers to defend those borders.
But this gathering, compiling of power and glory that comes of ruling worldly kingdoms has no appeal. Not to the Son of God who was with God from the beginning of all creation. The Word who spoke all creation into being.
God alone is worthy of worship. And so,
10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
I suspect he wasn’t hangry for much longer.
The violent world that we call the civilized world
The world of war and invasions and revolutions
The world of systemic imbalances and oppression based on ethnicity and country of origin
That is world of the now, the world that is not yet as it will be.
That is the world in which sinful humanity rules, and not particularly well
The nonviolent world of creation
The world of innocence and intimacy with God that we read of in Genesis
The world of worship and unity we read of in Revelation
That is the world in which God rules with mercy and lovingkindness
The tempter may lay claim to have the authority to give away the violence of human kingdoms, but only God may offer that world to the healing work of Christ
And God did just that. All because of love.
God so loved the world that God sent Jesus to redeem the world, to begin the long process of reconciling us to God, not with a sword and flames, not with miracles devised to terrify and terrorize.
God sent Jesus to draw humankind back to God by becoming a living, breathing portrait of God’s love…
Jesus fed the hungry, healed the lame, gave water to the thirsty and clothes to the naked.
Jesus gave sight to the blind and set captives free.
It seems silly, really, to think that Jesus would have succumbed to the temptation to worship Satan in hopes of gaining power or glory. Especially knowing that he gave it all up to be here among us. Using violence to gain power or influence, inciting violence to gain fame or notoriety, winking at the violence of others on your behalf as you seek honor and authority… that right there is worshiping Satan.
But [for Jesus] to obtain and possess the kingdom the power and the glory by [means of] nonviolent justice is to worship God. (Crossan, The Greatest Prayer, 173)
As our divine proxy, Jesus declines the opportunity to use violence to establish the Kingdom of God, recognizing it could only bring more of the same pain, despair, mourning and isolation that marked life under the Empire.
Time after time, empire after empire, nation after nation (including our own) has fallen prey to this temptation. Has chosen to engage the pursuit of power by way of violence. All too often in the name of God.
We have done violence to other peoples
By signing treaties that remove entire nations from their homelands and any hope of a future
By participating in genocide on our soil and on other continents
By kidnapping, enslaving and subjugating generations of Africans
By developing and using weapons of mass destruction
By deporting immigrant women and children to nations at war
By closing our borders to refugees
And then we claim to be followers of Jesus, the Christ.
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)
The Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted, just God tests us and leads us to times of trial. Not because God is fickle, but because we are… God’s stamina within our covenant relationship is astounding. God is unshakable.
We humans, however… well, we have integrity issues. God must check in with us regularly to see that we are still serious about following, trusting, and worshiping God alone.
Jesus was tempted in all the ways that we are tempted to turn from the commandments of God
By feeding ourselves as others go without
By wielding and displaying our power in order to intimidate others
By bowing down to and placing our earthly kingdoms in a position of power at the expense of others’ agency, culture, health and livelihoods
We can and must call upon his power, his capacity for love and mercy to overcome our own capacity for fear and hatred.
Our Father in Heaven is holy, and wholly beyond our imaginings
Our Father’s kingdom is one where all are welcome, all are fed, all are heard
Our Father’s grace and forgiveness is so abundant that we are filled to overflowing and splash them onto others with abandon
All of which assures us that when we worship God and God alone, we will see God’s kingdom of justice breaking into this world of violence, and God will no longer need to test us.
As children of God, we can call upon our Father with a sense of trust and hope
Giving all the glory and honor to our Creator, Savior and Helper
Now and forevermore