Popular Piety and the Our Father

COMMENTARY: Pope Francis’ recent suggestion can serve as a great moment to spotlight the true meaning behind this foundational prayer of the Church.

James Tissot, The Lord's Prayer
James Tissot, The Lord's Prayer (photo: Public domain)

Pope Francis has stirred the pot again with comments on the vernacular translation of the Lord’s Prayer. His comments suggest he dislikes the phrase “lead us not into temptation” and prefers something more akin to his native Spanish, “do not let us fall into temptation.” This has touched off a flurry of speculation that he intends to “change” the Lord’s Prayer.

But rather than see this latest move as another provocative chapter in Francis’ papacy, the proposed changes can actually serve as a great moment to spotlight the true meaning behind this foundational prayer of the Church.


Untouchable Scripture

First, the obvious point of clarification: The Lord’s Prayer is in the Bible, and no pope has the authority to change a single word of Scripture. The words of Scripture are the words of God, and mere mortals — even if they are the bishop of Rome and the successor to Peter — don’t get to correct and instruct God; rather, as Peter was, so his successors also must be, instructed by Our Lord.

But man’s efforts at translating the word of God into modern language is another matter.

Communicating the meaning of an ancient language (in this case, Greek) into modern speak is a fraught process, and translators labor to balance the sometimes-contradictory goals of preserving an accurate sense of the Greek, which requires bringing the modern reader backward in time to the ancient text, as well as presenting a translation that is serviceable and intelligible for a modern ear, which requires bringing the text forward in time to the reader.

These two translation goals come into direct conflict in translating the problematic clause “lead us not into temptation.” “Do not lead” is a perfectly accurate translation of the Greek me eisenegkes. The word means “bring in” and never carries the passive sense of “leave” or “abandon” or even “allow to be tempted.”

This, of course, sets up the theological problem: God is not supposed actively to bring us into temptation (James 1:13). Pope Francis is right on that score. Some may disagree and argue that, according to the scholastic explanation, we’re really praying that God might not withdraw the grace needed for us to resist temptation. Such an explanation, while theologically sound, does not reflect what is happening in the text and will invariably lead to another theological correction of a text that seemed to not make sense on its own terms. If we’re interpreting the original text, “lead to temptation” cannot be made to mean “take away the grace needed for me to not fall into temptation.”


Translation Temptations

The problem at hand really stems not from how we understand “do not lead” — the meaning of which is clear enough — but in how we understand “temptation,” the thing we don’t want our Heavenly Father to lead us into. Here, the Greek term peirasmos really means “test” or “trial.” Temptation is a possible way of understanding peirasmos because temptation is a kind of test.

But let’s take the argument in a different direction.

Peirasmos could be referring to a very specific trial, something rather terrible, something we’d like to avoid completely, if possible. Revelation 3:10 uses the term in just this way. Here, the peirasmos is the great trial associated with the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, the final destruction of the power of evil and the inauguration of God’s reign on earth. It’s no accident, then, that this petition is added in a prayer that is about the coming of God’s kingdom — “Thy Kingdom Come”!

It’s also no accident that the Lord echoes the language of the Our Father as he enters Gethsemane and begins his climactic struggle with the power of darkness (Luke 22:53; John 14:30). He urges the apostles once again to pray to avoid that final testing themselves (Mark 14:38; Matthew 27:41; Luke 22:46) since he would spare them from it (John 18:8).

It is not a sign of weakness that we should ask God to exempt us from the final Satanic onslaught. Remember Paul’s warning that the real battle is with forces utterly beyond our ability to defeat on our own (Ephesians 6:12-13).

Indeed, no one could possibly survive this final test without Jesus’ intervention (Mark 13:19-20). Therefore, it is with good reason that the Lord instructed his earliest followers to pray that God might not bring them into this final test at all. Seen this way, the petition “Do not lead us into the (final) test” makes perfect sense, without any fear of warped translations or theological massaging.

But recapturing the original sense of the Our Father is not the only consideration and, indeed, never has been. Eschatology is very hard to interpret.

We’re not sure whether the peirasmos Jesus referred to has already taken place or is setting the stage for an ultimate test at the Final Judgment. Moreover, all translations of ancient texts are interpretations, and devotional and liturgical prayer need to adapt even more to reach where contemporary Christians actually are.

So it’s only natural that the “test” referred to in the Lord’s Prayer would come to be understood with the passage of time as everyday temptations to sin we all undergo — temptations brought about by the world, the flesh and the devil. And with this meaning, it’s only natural that many vernacular languages like Spanish, French and Italian have come to pray “don’t let me fall into temptation” or “don’t let me enter into temptation,” which fits much better with peirasmos as “temptation.”

Even English speakers who pray the Pater Noster in English usually mean something like this, even if they say something different.


Updating Piety

Purists will object that Jesus’ words are changed; but that’s not what’s happening. The Greek texts of Matthew and Luke remain untouched for us to continually remind ourselves of their original meaning.

But the Lord’s Prayer in its many forms in history has always been an adaptation to the needs of popular piety. It’s not clear whether the bishops of the English-speaking world will seek to adapt “lead us not into temptation,” but if they do, there are actually a number of other adaptations that might be in order, some which might, ironically, bring us even closer to what Jesus actually said.

“Hallowed” is a word that has fallen into nearly total disuse in modern English; “sanctify” is how we usually translate the Greek word hagiazo elsewhere in the New Testament. “May your name be sanctified,” dare I say, has a more powerful ring than the overly familiar “hallowed by thy name.” And “trespass” was actually not the term used by Jesus here (he added that in Matthew 6:14 after the prayer); he spoke of forgiving us our debts even as we forgive our debtors.

With the explosion of unregulated finance and family indebtedness at an all-time high, maybe it’s time the bishops get us thinking and talking about debt forgiveness. Also, the translation “daily bread” is rather insufficient. It depends wholly on St. Jerome’s Latin “panis quotidianus” rendering of Luke 11:3.

But being aware of multiple translation possibilities of the Greek epiousios, Jerome translated Matthew 6:11 as “supersubstantial bread,” which could mean “above and beyond what we need for today” and thus might well carry Eucharistic overtones. Furthermore, we’d like Eucharistic bread both for our temptations and for the final test!

A more Eucharistic-inflected translation of the Lord’s Prayer might also help increase flagging belief in the Real Presence. While we’re at it, the final petition — “deliver us from evil” — is also insufficient. It treats evil as too abstract. We are more than warranted in translating the Greek as a masculine substantive “the Evil One.” Asking God to save us from him would actually heighten the stakes a bit!

Popular piety is naturally very resistant to change; alterations of what is familiar should not be sought for their own sake. But if well-founded changes to formulas that are overly familiar prompt the laity to a renewed appreciation of what they are really praying when they pray the Lord’s Prayer, this might end up being one pot that we will be glad Pope Francis had stirred.

Peter Brown is dean at Catholic Distance University.

He holds a doctorate in Scripture from The Catholic University of America.