DELIVER US FROM EVIL
"Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
"Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil."
Every now and again I attend services where the old version of the Lord's Prayer is said and we pray that God will not lead us into temptation. But why on earth would God want to do that in the first place? Yet in countless places this very day, the prayer is said by unruly schoolboys at church schools and Catholic cardinals saying Mass in English. And what temptations do we not want to be led into? There is quite a range from those associated with sex, food and money, to pride. Please God, we have prayed all these years, don't tempt us with these things, rather let others do so! The truth is, God does not lead us into temptation, so we don't have to ask God him to refrain from doing so. But God does want to save from the time of trial and deliver us from evil. The problem lies in translation. So what did Jesus have in mind when he told his disciples to pray not "Lead us not into temptation," but "save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil?"
In the year 4 CE, Roman legions crushed a wide-spread Jewish revolt in Judaea and Galilee. Village after village was sacked, and many towns including Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee, were razed to the ground in a frenzy of fire and blood. Resisters were crucified, beheaded or burnt to death. Inhabitants who could not hide were slaughtered if male, raped if female, and the young were taken into slavery. Sepphoris was not far from Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up shortly after this terrible Roman onslaught. Nazareth survived but as a young boy Jesus would have been familiar with stories told about those awful days, about people who had died and heroes who had resisted, and he may well have seen with his own eyes the ruins of houses and farms that had not yet been restored. It was a time of tribulation well remembered but which nobody would want to experience again, though it did happen, again at the hands of the Romans in year 64 CE and finally in 132 CE. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray "save us from the time of trial," he and they knew exactly what he meant. His generation knew what previous generations had experienced; they certainly did not want to go through that again. "Do not bring us to the test as you brought our parents!"
We are not strangers to such times of tribulation and trial. What happened in Palestine in Jesus' era happened to millions of people during the Second World War. Even if we did not experience those awful events, we have seen images of the world at war, and throughout the past half century the scenario has been repeated in countless places across the world. And now we witness on the news the barbaric advances of ISIL forces as they capture one town after another across northern Syria and deep into Iraq, beheading, raping, plundering. How many right at this moment in such places are praying "save us from the time of trial." This is not just a prayer which Jesus composed in order to teach his disciples how to pray; it is a prayer which arises from the depths of human experience, a universal petition of every generation, a cry of anguish from the heart. When we pray these words every day and again this morning, as Jesus told us to, we are joining all our fellow human beings who cry out "save us from the time of trial."
But there is more to consider. For parallel to the words "save us from the time or trial" is the phrase "rescue us from the evil one" or "deliver us from evil." Notice that these two translations have a different nuance. The first personalizes evil. "Rescue us from the evil one." Which immediately conjures up the image of the devil, the symbol of personal evil and brings to mind passages such Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, or the letter to the Ephesians: "Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." (6:11-12) Yes, we do, and rightly personalise evil. There are evil people behind the scourge of drug addiction, the manipulation of the stock markets, sex slavery, war and the advances of ISIL in Syria and Iraq, just as there were evil Roman emperors in Jesus day and tyrants throughout history.
The personal embodiment of evil symbolized by the devil is a reality, but we must be careful how we understand the word devil. Christian faith rejects the idea that there are, in fact, two Gods, the one good and the other evil. There is only one God and that God is all-loving, all-good. This does not mean we don't recognise the awful reality of evil, or that we do not experience that evil power in personal ways, as C.S. Lewis graphically describes in the Screwtape Letters. But to believe in God means that we do not believe in the devil, that is, we do not put our trust in evil or believe that evil has the final word.. To believe in God means that even in times of trial we trust the power of God's love, grace and forgiveness. That is why we pray both "save us from the time of trial" and "deliver us from evil!" Save us from ourselves becoming instruments of evil as we face the evil in the world today. Save us from the despair that leads us to doubt God's love and care for us. Save us from doubting that Jesus' way is the way that leads to life.
Jesus himself faced this challenge at the beginning of his ministry and through his life even up to the cross. He was tempted by the devil, and encouraged by some of his followers, to seize power and lead an insurrection to overthrow the Romans and establish God's Messianic kingdom on earth. In times of trial we are always tempted to hate our enemies, taking vengeance and embarking on acts of retaliation. That is a natural reaction, but for Jesus it was being led into evil, acting in ways which are as barbaric as those performed by our adversaries. The way of God's kingdom or rule is one of love for enemies and forgiveness of those who persecute us. So we pray to God: "Save us from those times of trial when we are tempted to lose our faith and act in ways that deny your will; but if and when we have to face them, when we find ourselves in the Wilderness and confronted by the devil, deliver us from doing evil ourselves lest we become evil. "For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory."
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 16 October 2014