About once year I have a recurring anxiety dream. I’m back in seminary – priest training college – sitting my exams. Then I wake up and realise – phew – I’ve already been ordained, and it’s OK, I’ve passed the test to become a priest.
Few of us like being put to the test. But tests are important. Just this week one friend of mine passed her basic training to ride a motorcycle on a public road, and another, who is Spanish, passed his English Literacy test to work in a British school. I don’t think any of us would want our children taught by someone who doesn’t speak English well, and still less to encounter an untested rider on the highway. Tests force us to focus and to perform better.
In today’s Gospel, we hear Our Lord teaching us a very familiar prayer, but in unfamiliar language. Both St Luke – whose words we heard today – and St Matthew, recall how the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Luke gives us a shorter version, but both Gospels, after asking forgiveness, say “do not put us to the test”. At least, that’s what they say in the English text of the Bible we use for our Mass readings.*
What did Jesus actually say to his disciples? Most likely he taught them in Aramaic, the later version of Hebrew spoken in Roman times. But the Gospels got written in Greek, and we have identical words in the earliest copies of Matthew and Luke. Three hundred years later, when the offical Latin Bible was written, those words were translated again, as “ne nos inducas in tentationem” – and if you know the Lord’s Prayer, or Pater Noster, in Latin, those words will still sound familiar today. Translations of the Bible as far back as the 14th century borrowed one of those Latin words into English as “temptation”.
Today, whenever we use the word “temptation”, it always has the sense of inviting someone to break a rule, do something unhealthy or commit a sin. You can even get a box of chocolates called Temptations! But that’s because the word has become more specialised over the centuries. The Latin word, and “temptation” when it first became an English word, could mean any kind of trial or test – a test of ability, a test of strength, or a test of moral character. Indeed, almost any kind of test will reveal something about our virtues and vices!
“Pray not to be put to the test.” When Jesus took Peter, James and John to the Garden of Gethsemane, he spoke to them in very similar words. Then they were both tested and tempted. Our Lord was arrested. Would they use violence? Jesus had to tell Peter to put away his sword. Would they deny following Jesus? Three times, before the cock crew, Simon Peter had sworn “I do not know the man!” Most of the apostles fled Calvary, leaving only Our Lady and St John the Beloved at the foot of the cross. Would they believe his prophecies that he would rise from the dead? The joyful words of St Mary Magdalen were scorned at first before the Risen Lord confirmed the truth to his sorely tested disciples.
So when you pray, ask your Father in heaven… well, what exactly? Are we asking Him not to tempt us to sin? Or not to test us in ways where our own weaknesses, with or without help from the Devil, are likely to lead us to sin? At the end of 2017, Pope Francis gave a media interview where he stressed that it is not God, but the Enemy, who tempts us to do evil. Since then, you may have seen irate internet posts from Protestant leaders attacking the Pope for “changing the words of Jesus”.
Of course the Pope isn’t seeking to change anything Our Lord said – he’s only asking how we can best express that in our own everyday language. The Bible text we read at Mass is from a 20th Century translation. “Do not put us to the test” is the best way to put Our Lord’s words into modern English. But when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we aren’t praying in modern English, we’re praying in words that have been largely unchanged for centuries. People don’t like being asked to unlearn old familiar prayers – I’m sure we didn’t when the Missal was updated a decade ago – and “lead us not into temptation” are some of the best known words in the English language.
If we turn to another part of the Bible, the Letter of St James, we read that “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does God tempt anyone.” But God certainly does test his faithful people. In today’s first reading, God has sent angels to warn Abraham about the destruction of Sodom. Abraham passes this test by asking God to have mercy even if there are 10 good souls in the town – but there aren’t. The whole of the Bible is about God testing human beings. Will Adam and Eve touch the forbidden tree? Will Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac? Will Moses tell Pharaoh “Let God’s people go?” Will Jonah prophesy to Nineveh? Will Mary say yes to Gabriel? Will Jesus flee from the Garden of Gethsemane? Will you and I use the talents God has entrusted to us to help needy people and grow God’s church?
St Paul tells us clearly that at the end our lives, our works will be tested. He also consoles us by assuring us that God will not test us more than we can bear, and that God will cause all things to work out for good for those who love Jesus. So we are left with this mystery. Our Father in heaven will test us, but also calls us to “pray not to be put to the test”. In our age we may be tested by being required to produce a DBS certificate to prove our good character, or asked to defend something Pope Francis has said. So pray not to be put to the test. But when you are tested – and you will be – pray for God to help you to pass the test with integrity. If you should fail, remember the Lord’s Prayer includes a petition for forgiveness, too!
* Generally on this blog I link to the United States lectionary for the full readings because it provides a stable link that still works years later. However, the translation there this week says “Do not subject us to the final test!” (Luke 11:4 NAB and Matthew 6:13 NAB.) For other in-blog Bible references I tend to use Oremus NRSV Anglicised which offers “Do not bring us to the time of trial!” (Luke 11:4 NRSV-A and Matthew 6:13 NRSV-A). The Lectionary used by most British Catholic Churches uses the Jerusalem Bible (not to be confused with the New Jerusalem Bible) which renders this passage as “Do not put us to the test”.
Further reflections: In the length of a sermon, there is no time to ponder the other part of Our Lord’s phrasing, “ne inducas”, “do not induce / draw towards us / draw us towards” temptation. Part of the controversy about Pope Francis’ comments in 2017 is around his choice of “do not allow us to fall into temptation”, which reflects the common usage he is familiar with in Spanish – “no nos dejes caer en la tentacion”. The Pope’s favoured words imply “Dear God, please make an intervention here to prevent me being tested, or to prevent me failing if I am tested.” Our traditional language implies “Dear God, if you were planning on leading me into a situation where I will be tempted, please change your mind.” Behind this is a complex question of how exactly God intervenes in the day-to-day workings of the world. God permits human beings the freedom to choose sinfully, so everything which occurs is according to the “permissive will of God”. Should God work a miracle or communicate a desire clearly to a particular person, these would be very specific enactments of God’s active will. But what exactly am I expecting God to do, within my mind or in the wider world, to make me less likely to be tested or tempted today? I don’t know – but I do know Jesus felt it was important that I ask this of my Father every day!