As I begin to decide what message to share with you each week, I try choosing a Scripture that is relevant for what we are facing in that week. Months ago, I decided to do the series on the Lord’s Prayer for Lent. Taking a verse at a time, “lead us not into temptation” was the verse I’d planned for Palm Sunday.
Several days ago, I asked myself “Given how dramatically our lives have changed in the last month, is this verse still timely?” I tried listing temptations we are facing as individuals and as a global community:
The temptation to hoard.
The temptation to fall prey to fear.
The temptation to be careless.
The temptation to look for scapegoats.
The temptation to ignore lessons we are learning about science, nature and the global economy.
Much to my surprise, similar ideas kept coming to mind. It was like I’d opened a pressurized spigot.
“Ok,” I said to myself, “I think this verse will work.”
I will reflect on the meaning of the phrase as it stands within the prayer. Then we’ll use it as a focal point to imagine what the verse might have meant to Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Then I’ll bring these thoughts to bear on what we are going through.
Lead Us Not into Temptation Within the Lord’s Prayer
Jesus invites us to share in the intimacy he had with God as not just an abstract concept or far-off deity, but an intimate Abba/Father. This parent is like the head of our human household, who cares for each of us, regardless of who or where we are, and expects us to look out for each other.
We then pray for daily bread, the food that sustains us and the economic and political systems that ensure all persons receive enough. We pray that the forgiveness of debts be freely practiced, both personal (a second chance from God and others after we’ve made mistakes) and economic (to save people from desperate living in hard times). Which brings us to “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (I’ll focus on “deliver us from evil” next week.)
What does it mean to you when you pray “lead us not into temptation?”
If we pause to think about it, a question often arises: Do we have to ask God to not lead us into temptation? Why would a loving parent ever lead us into a situation in which we may fail or find ourselves over our head?
Pope Francis has one answer. In 2017, he changed the wording for the next missal. Instead of saying “lead us not into temptation,” it will say “do not let us fall into temptation.” “It is not a good translation because it speaks of a God who induces temptation,” he told Italian TV. “I am the one who falls. It’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen.” I can see his point.
Scholar John Dominick Crossan believes the original meaning of the verse is specifically focused on the temptation Jesus and his followers would have faced to resort to violence when confronted with arrest and opposition. This was a new perspective for me, and a valuable one.
Eugene Peterson translates it this way: “Keep us safe from ourselves…” As many spiritual teachers have told us, we are all a mixture of noble and selfish impulses, and we need help to ask for help to do so.
I look at my life and know that major temptations for me have changed over time. It depends on what I’m facing in different situations.
At this point, I’m going to keep the words as they come to us. When I say the phrase, I’m going to be thinking something like “Help me deal with whatever temptations I am experiencing now and in the days ahead.” What works for you?
Jesus’ Temptations as He Enters Jerusalem
Can you remember a moment when you were aware you were taking a decisive step in your life? Beginning to walk down the aisle at your wedding? Leaving a community you were familiar with to move to a totally new one? Accepting a job offer, or deciding to quit? I remember leaving by myself on my trip to Europe in January. When it was time to board the plane in San Francisco headed to Munich 6,000 miles away, I remember thinking, “Well, …here I go.”
Thinking of such moments, I’m going to invite you to think of what might have been in Jesus’ mind as he looked at Jerusalem from the vantage point of the Mount of Olives.
For two years, Jesus has centered his work 80 miles north of Jerusalem in Galilee. As he continues to challenge the social, political and religious status powers in word and deed, opposition to him is growing. Those powers are centered in Jerusalem. The Passover festival is coming, and many people will be in the city to observe it. At Passover, Jewish people remember their escape from Egyptian oppression, which could motivate them to rebel against their current oppressor, Rome. Knowing that, the Romans reinforce the city. Jesus decides he will take his message into the city and confront those authorities. Scholars believe his plan was to be visible and active in the city during the day but leave the city as night falls to be in a “safe house” belonging to one of his supporters. Matthew tells us he was at the Mount of Olives before entering the city.
I remember spending time at the Mount of Olives east of Jerusalem on a warm July afternoon in 1999. It’s close to the city but approximately 300 feet higher in elevation. If Jesus did pause there before he approached the city, he would have had a complete view of all he was facing. I remember pausing to see the view, then walking down the narrow road towards the city’s eastern entrance known as the Golden Gate. I remember how steep that unpaved road is. I remember thinking roads this steep wouldn’t be permitted where we live. I remember having to be careful as I walked down.
I offer this description because I want us to imagine what it might have felt like to know he was making one of those critical life decisions. He knew what he was walking into; the steepness of the road seems symbolically appropriate to me. He was walking not just into the city but descending to face the forces that were opposing him and would, in a few days, violently take his life. What would that have felt like?
For today’s focus, I want to pose another question: what temptations would he be facing? He’d been tempted in the wilderness. He’d given his followers a simple prayer which encourages them to pray for help in times of temptation. As he faces the city, what temptations might be arising for him?
I can imagine he’d be tempted by many things:
· Not confront the authorities to the point where they will execute him.
· React impulsively if he’s insulted, threatened or struck.
· Avoid taking actions that will, in the short run, create pain, grief and confusion for his followers and family.
· Avoid telling his disciples things they don’t want to hear and testing their loyalty and strength.
Jesus makes his move. He enters to a crowd cheering “Hosanna,” which means “save us” or “rescue us.” They put palm fronds on his path as a symbol of welcome.
The Gospels tell the stories of how he dealt with the days that follow. I can easily imagine him praying often for his Abba’s help as he managed his temptations. He needed to stay true to his calling, even when it was tempting not to.
Our Temptations as We Live in the Midst of the Pandemic
Clearly, the temptations Jesus faced as he entered Jerusalem were unique to his life, calling and context. But I believe we can let the temptation phrase be a critical resource for us in our daily spiritual practice and life as we navigate our unprecedented situation. I’ll list a few and invite you to think of others.
The temptation to hoard. There is a natural impulse for us to prepare for threats to our life. I think we all agree that we need to be very thoughtful and plan to obtain what we need for our basic needs. But hoarding is stealing from others. If we accept Jesus’ invitation to be part of the larger divine household, hoarding is a temptation we must resist.
The temptation to fall prey to fear. As I discussed in the sermon on the 23rd Psalm, fear exists to alert us to what we need to pay attention to. We can invite it to be our friend and listen for the information. But letting ourselves be ruled by fear will disable our better judgment.
The temptation to be careless. Some of us are naturally conscientious, some of us less so. I’m in the latter group. It’s been a challenge to learn and follow the protocols that are keeping us safe. May we all be vigilant. It’s a matter of life and death.
The temptation to ignore lessons we are learning about science, nature and the global economy. When we are in a major life crisis, we can be motivated to make passionate commitments about how we will change our behavior if we can just get past what we are facing. Once the danger is past, we may make those changes, gaining both humility and wisdom in the process. (One phrase for this is “post-traumatic growth.”) But other times, when things return to normal, we revert to old patterns.
If there is going to be a positive outcome for the human household – and the planet -- as we come out of this pandemic it must include a laser-like focus on climate change. In an article this past week in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman wrote:
“…as we win this battle with the coronavirus and begin to think about the next round of stimulus that we want to inject into the economy — and there will be a next round — it is vital that we keep in mind just how much more destructive climate change could be for all of us, and make sure that we invest in long-term resilience against that as well.
Because there is one huge difference between the coronavirus and climate change: Climate change doesn’t “peak” — and then flatten out and then maybe dissipate or be permanently prevented by vaccine — so normal life resumes.
No, when the Greenland and Antarctic ice melts, it’s gone, and we humans will have to contend with the implications of sea level rise, mass movements of populations and various kinds of extreme weather — wetter wets, hotter hots and drier dries — forever.
There is no herd immunity to climate change. There are only endless impacts on the herd.”
I spend my days focusing on my household, my extended family, my congregation and my community. I also join with all of you in trying to comprehend what is happening around the world. We are all doing what we can to survive and help each other. But as members of the divine household, and as stewards of this precious planet, we must understand that this pandemic is a wake-up call to make major changes in the way we live. We may be tempted to ignore that. If we do, we will fail in our most fundamental God-given responsibility as members of the human family. Jesus offers us this prayer to help us be humble, thoughtful and faithful as we face the challenges in life. Asking for God’s help as we deal with important temptations is a wise practice as we live through this pandemic.