"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, February 10, 2008

There's temptation, and then there's temptation

The penance given me at my most recent confession was to pray the Lord's Prayer "slowly and meditatively." Of course, when I pray any traditional prayer in that way, it usually doesn't take me long to start mulling over its theological interpretation. In the present case, the issue was the closing two phrases. In the original Greek, that's καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν, ἀλλὰ ῥῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ; in Latin, ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a malo; in the King-James translation that English-speaking Catholics still insist on using, it's "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Given that today's Gospel was Jesus' temptation by Satan in the desert, I thought I'd bring my internal discussion out into the open.

It was the Holy Spirit who had led Jesus into the desert to fast and pray as preparation for his ministry. Being stuck out in the desert has a way of bringing things "right down to the real nitty-gritty," as the 60s pop-song refrain went. The ancient, newly liberated Hebrews wandering in the Sinai desert were sure brought there. As eremitic tradition indicates, it can bring one face to face with demons, both figuratively and literally. And sure enough, Satan challenged Jesus face to face at the end of the fast. Thus, as I observed last year around this time, by leading Jesus into the desert "God did to the Son of God what the Son of God instructs us," in the last two phrases of the Lord's Prayer, "to ask God not to do to us." Despite knowing all about the usual historical-critical exegesis on this point, I remain puzzled by that. I know we are confidently assured that the phrases in question, at least as understood by their original audience, were eschatological in significance. Jesus was telling his followers to pray that they be spared the supreme "time of testing" that Satan would be permitted to visit upon the elect in the very last days leading up to the Second Coming. And I do not doubt that that is at least how the phrases were meant and understood. But there's very little in the words and actions of Jesus that mean only what was first explicitly stated and understood. This is no exception.

For each of us can face our own, individual eschatological crisis. Many people do: some, at the very hour of death; others, at points in their lives where a momentous, life-defining choice between real good and merely apparent good—i.e., evil—must be made. They face a test, a "temptation" in the sense of "trial." That's the kind of thing the Lord's Prayer points to, beyond the historically well-attested. I myself once faced a test like that. Of course I flunked. It is only by the infinite mercy of God that I am still a candidate for final salvation at all, and I've been doing my penance since—even though my awareness of that fact is far too recent. All of that helps me understand more deeply what the last two petitions of the Lord's Prayer mean even to those of us who consider it highly unlikely that we'll be around for the Really Big Test just before the Lord comes again.

My experience convinces me, beyond any reasonable doubt, that we do well to pray not to be "led into" any eschatological crisis. Even those of us who've been given all we need to pass the test can, and readily do, flunk. And if we flunk at the hour of death, we won't get to take a makeup exam. We do well indeed to pray that we be not led into that "temptation." But the likelihood of finding ourselves in the thick of it rises with our presumption and sloth. That is why we are exhorted to "watch and pray," knowing full well we are sinners and ever seeking to become more like the one for whom we are watching, through whom all our prayers reach the Father.

Since Jesus was incapable of sin, he was sure to resist his "temptation" by Satan in the desert. Since we are sinners, he urges us to pray not be led into such temptation; yet his victory over Satan, culminating on the Cross, simultaneously shows us the pattern we must emulate if we are to reverse the effects of original sin in our lives, and gives us the power to do so. By refusing to turn stones into bread when he was famished, Jesus showed us that we must put fidelity to our mission as disciples above our personal needs and desires. By refusing to gain temporal power at the price of worshiping Satan, Jesus showed us that real power, the only kind that matters, consists in submission to God. That's what Adam and Eve forgot. By refusing to throw himself off the temple parapet in the expectation that he would be saved by angels, Jesus let God be sovereign rather than at his beck-and-call. And after all that, he was of course ministered to by angels.

Thus he gave us the power and the promise. Let us not forget that they are the fruit of a struggle that our first parents lost and that we often lose. It is by doing what we must but cannot do for ourselves that Jesus gave us our chance to do it at all. Thank God it's never by ourselves, like him in the desert. We always have him, and his spotless Mother, to rely on.
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