We are nearing the end of our series on the Lord’s Prayer, one that we have borrowed the Title from J.D. Crossan who refers to it as The Strangest Prayer. He claims that the Lord’s Prayer is not just a tame little side lesson to Jesus’ teaching ministry, but the central core of his revolutionary message. The Lord’s Prayer, so often turned into a rote repetition in our worship, is actually a phenomenally radical set of teachings. And when we pray this prayer, if we mean it, we are engaging in the radical life to which Christ has called us. For us to pray this “strangest prayer” is to engage in a strange life, an odd life, a revolutionary life.
And perhaps that revolutionary life seems most strange this week, in which we remember Christ’s final week on earth, leading up to his death on the cross. In fact, Crossan suggests that perhaps this is the week most appropriate to examine this prayer and its impact on our lives. For the revolutionary nature of Christ’s prayer was seen most fully in the events of Holy Week. And, Crossan suggests, this was perhaps the week in which the prayer itself was first prayed. Let me explain.
I have said over these last weeks that we can find the Lord’s Prayer in at least two Gospels – a version in Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, and a slightly different version in Luke, chapter 11. But Crossan blew my mind when he began to talk about the third version of the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospels. Not in Matthew. Not in Luke. But in Mark. His argument is compelling. Look at the words of Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer and how they compare:
• In Gethsemane, Jesus prays to Abba (Father): “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer.
• In Gethsemane, Jesus prays to the God for whom all things are possible: “who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”
• In Gethsemane, Jesus prays for God’s will to be done: “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
• In Gethsemane, Jesus corrects the disciples for falling asleep and falling to temptation: “Lead us not into temptation.”
• And in Gethsemane, Jesus prays “Lord, let this cup pass from me.”: “But deliver us from evil.”
The more I read and re-read the passage in Mark, the more it seemed to make sense. Mark names the themes and some of the same language of the Lord’s Prayer in this very specific context of his final moments of freedom before his arrest, trial, and execution. And perhaps we can only understand the Lord’s Prayer when we view it through the final events of his life…and his death. Perhaps this is Mark’s way of saying that Jesus’ ultimate lesson to us about how to pray must be connected to the way that he taught us how to live. Watching Christ pray this prayer in this way, at this time, is most significant. It helps us to flesh out the concepts of the “strangest prayer” more fully.
“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” It is a phrase filled with complex ideas, and perhaps it is the Gethsemane version that enlightens us as we examine it today.
“Lead us not”
Is there anyone else who struggles with this phrase? After all, it sure sounds like God is the one leading us to temptation, and our prayer is a desperate attempt to convince God to do otherwise. It sure sounds like, if I am to be honest, that God is trying to trip us up with temptations, throwing hurdles of temptation in our path. “Don’t lead me to temptation God!”
As we read this prayer during Holy Week, we recognize that one reading of this phrase is that God is a Dictator, one who uses us as his puppets. God leads us down roads of evil and temptation, only to turn around and punish us in the end when we follow those roads. And this Holy Week, such a model of the Dictator God is revealed in his starkest nature. For Jesus, the puppet extraordinaire, was forced not only down a path into temptation, but ultimately to his suffering and death. According to this Dictator view of God, Christ was guilt-tripped into doing something beyond his will, and his prayer, “let this cup pass from me,” was a cry for pity from a God who had already chosen to give him none. A God who had predetermined that his bloodlust for a sacrifice was so great that only the humiliation and torture and death of his son would satisfy that craving?
New Testament scholar Sue Garrett rejects the model of God the Dictator. She suggests that we find in the prayer of Gethsemane both the darkness of God’s anger and the beauty of God’s grace. She argues that God’s anger was indeed present in the darkness of Holy Week. But it was not focused on Jesus, a sacrificial substitute for the rest of us, in order to appease a blood-thirsty and wrathful nature. In fact, God’s anger was directed squarely upon those who surrounded Jesus, those who were so off-base from what God wanted for the world that the only thing that they could do with Jesus was to destroy him. God was indeed angry, but angry at the evil of those who followed the path of self-righteousness, of self-preservation, of self-worship. God’s anger was reserved for the apathetic Romans who ruled from on high and dared to name themselves “Almighty.” God’s anger was reserved for the chief priests and religious leaders who crashed through the garden with violent swords to arrest Jesus, because he threatened their way of life. Perhaps even God’s anger was reserved for the disciples who felt it was more important to catch a few winks than to join with Jesus in prayer. The only person in that garden that God was not angry with was Jesus. It is a misplaced theology that suggests that God’s hatred of sin required a hatred of Jesus, or that God’s wrath was more powerful than God’s grace.
So, when we pray to God not to “lead us into temptation,” we are not begging from mercy from a God of wrath. Instead, we are calling for a God of grace to lead us away from those paths toward disobedience. And alienation. And destruction. And death. For these are the things that anger God, who wills our faithfulness and our reconciliation.
“Lead us not…into temptation.”
Christ’s request of the Father to take the cup away is one of the most vulnerable and painful scenes in Scripture. In fact, if our view of Jesus requires a divinity so strong and removed from human weakness and pain and suffering, we will tend to ignore this passage, or at least explain it away as mere appearance of weakness. But if we truly believe that Jesus was human as well as divine, then of course we believe that there was a part of him that did not want to die, that did not want to suffer, that did not want to be alienated from God, that did not want to follow this road of obedience into darkness and pain.
And so, when we read Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane reminds us that Jesus could have walked away from all of it. Jesus had to have been tempted to walk out of that garden and save his own hide. We know that the disciples weren’t going to catch him…they were all snoozing under the trees. He had a head start on Judas and the religious leaders and he knew they were coming. Jesus could have followed the rules of the Kingdom of self-preservation and disappeared from the whole mess. But he chose to resist the temptation.
By the way, it was always the same temptations that haunted him, since the very beginning, and every step along the way. And it was the values of the Lord’s Prayer that helped him to turn them back again and again.
When Satan met him in the wilderness, he tempted him with self-reliance: “turn these stones into bread.” But in response, Jesus chose reliance upon God: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
When Satan met him in the wilderness, he tempted him with all of the Kingdoms of the world.
But in response, Jesus chose another Kingdom: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
When Satan met him in the wilderness, he tempted him to immerse himself in his divinity and to step off of the Temple and allow himself to be carried away by the angels. But in response, Jesus chose to immerse himself in his humanity. He chose to do it the hard way, the way of becoming flesh and dwelling among us, the way of pain and suffering and struggle and service… and death on the cross.
The temptations of Satan in the wilderness never really left him. And now, with Satan meeting him in the garden, the temptation for Jesus to walk away had to be overwhelming. But in response, Jesus chose to follow the path of prayer, of discipline, of obedience. That’s how he resisted evil. And that’s how we resist evil. Not by overcoming it with power or might or guile, but by submitting to the one who has overcome it already.
“Let this cup pass from me, but not my will, but yours be done.”
The temptation is finally overcome, in the power of God’s grace.
“…but deliver us from evil.”
N.T. Wright suggests that there were three options to Jesus in his context when confronted with the power of evil:
One, he could have pretended that evil didn’t exist. There were faithful Jews, known as the Saducees, who basically did just this. They married themselves to their Roman dictators and bought into their culture and their power and found no need to resist them. Theirs was the choice of submission and assimilation, and repeatedly chose the Kingdom of Rome above and beyond the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever the popular culture, government, and latest governor suggested, that’s what they believed. They simply regurgitated the values of those who were in power. Evil? Just a figment of our imagination.
Two, he could have suggested that evil was everywhere. Like I named a couple of weeks ago, the faithful believers known as the Essenes took this option. They hightailed it out of town to live in caves, because they saw everything that the Romans did as evil. They headed out into the desert and made their own compounds to remove themselves from temptation. Only by retreating from evil could evil be avoided.
Or three, he could have chosen to believe that evil existed… “out there.” He could have chosen the perfectionism of the Pharisees, who chose to suggest that the only way to avoid evil was to name it and eradicate it from their lives. But, just like Jesus accused them of, they believed that it was their God-given right to point out the sliver of evil in your life, all the while ignoring the plank of evil in their own.
By the way, in case you hadn’t figured it out, those options are still alive and well today.
1. Like the Sadducees, we can pretend as though evil doesn’t exist, and marry ourselves to the culture around us in a sea of assimilation. Whatever the popular culture, government, and latest blog post suggests, that’s what we believe. And we repeatedly choose the Kingdoms of Hollywood, Cable News, Political Party, and Madison Avenue above and beyond the Kingdom of Heaven. If in doubt, perhaps you can add up how much time in your day is spent ingesting the principles of these Kingdoms vs. how much time is spent ingesting the principles taught us by prayer, scripture, and spiritual practices. We, too, will soon begin to simply regurgitate the values of those to whom we listen. Evil? Just a figment of our imagination.
2. There are some who suggest, instead, that evil is everywhere. Virtual Essenes, we hide amongst Christian-only media, friendships, and politicians and authorities, assuming that everything that doesn’t look and sound like us is evil. And in the process, we begin to worship our constructs of Race, Gender, and Status Quo, since that’s all we see within the cave walls around us.
3. And finally, oh, how many of us choose the way of life of the Pharisees?! Perfectionistic and judgmental, we see the world in perfect, climate-controlled black and white, and believe that it is our duty to point out other’s failings. If we tend toward the conservative persuasion, we will defend the status quo and criticize anything that looks or sounds out of line of our fundamentalism. If we tend toward the liberal persuasion, we are just as susceptible to fundamentalism and perfectionism, serving as the PC police making sure that the rest of us understand that we are doing it all wrong.
The options that were available to Jesus then are available to us, now, and if you step back and look, you’ll see that these options transcend culture and time and place and make themselves available whenever and wherever.
But, then there is this fourth option. The Jesus option. Because he rejected all of these notions about evil, choosing instead a different way. Did he believe that evil existed in the world? Absolutely. His was not a head-in-the-sand idealism. Yet, he chose to confront it with the power of the Kingdom story. For Jesus, evil was not non-existent, but it was also not all-powerful and terrifying. Jesus preached that the truth and the power of the Kingdom gave us another option beyond being led into temptation, beyond being bonded to the power of evil. The Jesus option suggests that even though the powers and principalities are knocking at our door, we don’t have to let them in. This week, I invite you again to relive the story of the Jesus option. Together, may we stand against the evil that surrounds us. Let us not run away from the darkness. Let us not pretend that the darkness does not exist. Let us embrace the darkness. Because we know how the story ends.