March 1: Matt 4:1-11 par; 6:13; Lk 11:4

A traditional text from the Gospels for the First Sunday in Lent is the narrative of the Temptation of Jesus (parallel accounts in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13, along with a brief summary note in Mark 1:12-13). The themes of fasting and renunciation—denial of self, submission to God’s will, and endurance of testing—were deemed especially applicable to the season of Lent. In many parts of the world, strict Lentan rules are still in force, though among Protestants seasonal fasting has largely disappeared. And, although the three temptations Jesus faces in the narrative are, in one sense, unique to his Person (“if you are the Son of God…”), believers may still follow his example and also gain strength by the account.

The narratives in Matthew and Luke are very close, and are generally regarded by critical scholars as deriving from the common collection of sayings and traditions designated as “Q” (Quelle, source). In any case, it is clear that a common tradition is at work. The greatest difference between the two involves the order of the temptations:

LUKE:

1.       In the desert (vv. 2-4)

2.       High mountain (vv. 5-8)

3.       Wing/pinnacle of the Temple (vv. 9-12)

MATTHEW:

1.       In the desert (vv. 2-3)

2.       Wing/pinnacle of the Temple (vv. 5-7)

3.       High mountain (vv. 8-10)

The order in Matthew is often considered more likely to be original, for two main reasons: (1) the gradual ascension from desert floor to high mountain, (2) the declaration ku/rion to\n qeo/n sou proskunh/sei$ kai\ au)tw=| mo/nw| latreu/sei$ (“you shall worship [lit. kiss toward] the Lord your God and he alone you shall serve”) is a more suitable climax. This may well be case; however, I tend to prefer the Lukan order: (1) the climax on top of the Temple in Jerusalem seems particularly appropriate in the context of the Gospels, (2) there seems to be an intensifying in the nature of the temptation:

    1. Satisfying physical need (hunger)
    2. Gaining Worldly power and ambition
    3. Testing God

Not surprisingly, a few (versional) manuscripts apparently modified Luke to match Matthew’s order, and there may well be a tendency so to harmonize the accounts; but this is entirely unnecessary. For here is truly an example where the differences between the Gospels are complementary, and both should be held up together as containing important points of emphasis.

For a moment I would like to turn to the brief account in Mark 1:12-13, where it states kai\ eu)qu\$ to\ pneu=ma au)to\n e)kba/llei ei)$ th\n e&rhmon, “and immediately the Spirit casts him out in the the desert…” This is quite striking (Matthew and Mark use very different language in their account), and for me it brings to mind the famous petition of the Lord’s Prayer kai\ mh\ ei)sene/gkh|$ h(ma=$ ei)$ peirasmo/n (“and you should not bring us into testing”), Luke 11:4b, and identical in Matthew 6:13a with the accompanying imperatival phrase a)lla\ r(u=sai h(ma=$ a)po\ tou= ponhrou= (“but drag us away [i.e. rescue us] from the evil”).  Here I find three major interpretive questions, which I will discuss briefly:

1. What is the precise meaning of peirasmo/$?

Generally the Greek word would be translated “test, testing, trial” (from peira/w, “attempt, try, try to do [something]”). It can have: (1) a general, or neutral sense; (2) a positive sense (i.e, of “proving” someone or something); or (3) a negative sense (i.e., temptation). In the New Testament, the negative sense is more common, and probably is so intended here; however, I would still caution against translating the word as “temptation”, for the more general English “test, testing” is a better fit—the overall context, not translation of individual words, ultimately determines the meaning. Certainly, the positive sense of testing/proving would seem unlikely: otherwise, why, indeed, would we pray for God not to lead us into it? Some scholars have thought that here peirasmo/$ refers to an eschatological testing or “tribulation” preceding the final Judgment; this is possible, but, I think also unlikely. In virtually every instance in the New Testament where ‘testing’ is mentioned in an eschatological context, the positive aspect of ‘proving’ (do/kimo$, doki/mion) is present (cf. 1 Peter 1:6; 4:12, etc). Here in the Lord’s Prayer, I would say that a sense of ‘testing’ involving sin, evil, and/or present suffering is required.

2. What does it mean then to “bring into” (ei)sfe/rw) testing?

The verb form (ei)sene/gkh|$) is a subjunctive, and not an imperative; however, the (aorist) subjunctive + mh/ takes on the force of a prohibition “you should not….” which is similar to an imperative. The petition is that God should not bring (or lead) us into testing; but, if “testing” is understood in the negative sense of “temptation” (to sin), then this would seem to present a major theological difficulty, already recognized in the early Church—that God should be said to “tempt” believers (see virtually the opposite notion explicitly stated in James 1:13). No simple answer can be given, other than to suggest that in the Lord’s Prayer, in keeping with the form of a basic prayer, peirasmo/$ should be understood (and translated) in a very general way (as “test” or “testing”). Despite the profundity of the Prayer, it remains very concise and simple in form—it is not meant to present a detailed theology (much less a theodicy!), and, I believe, ought to be understood as covering more ground here than simply “temptation”. Testing, particularly of a sort that we would naturally wish to avoid—involving some form of suffering, or the possibility of moral failure, and the like—will surely be part of every believer’s experience. I would also say that it is a most natural, human response, the expression that we would prefer not to go through such testing. Since God guides the paths of all believers, certainly, it is He who brings us into testing. Far from being sinful, or cowardly, I consider it faithful to express our human fears and desires to God. Surely, there is no better example than Jesus himself who prayed first “Abba, Father, all things are powerful [i.e. possible] to you; bring along [i.e. take away] this cup from me”, adding, “but not what I wish, but what you [wish]”.

3. How should we understand to ponhro/$?

Increasingly today, commentators interpret this phrase—literally, “the evil”—as “the evil (One)”, that is, Satan. This is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, at least in terms of the thrust of Jesus’ original words. However, this is far from clear as the Prayer now stands in the Gospels. Again, I suggest it is better to keep the sense (and translation) of the Greek as simple and general as possible—i.e., “the evil”, including the malevolent actions of humans and devils alike. As with the rest of the Prayer, the language is simple and striking: “but drag us (away) from the evil”. Once more an imperative is used—if there is some caution, or uncertainty, in the request not to be brought into testing, there is none here: as it has been traditionally rendered…”deliver us from evil!”

In the Greek Church, the First Sunday of (Great) Lent is the “Feast of Orthodoxy”—celebrating the victory of Orthodoxy against heresy. The immediate historical context was the Iconoclastic controversy in the Byzantine Church. Icons are images—of Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, and other famous Saints—which decorated church buildings and were used in worship. Some leaders began to denounce the practice, thought, in the wake of the Islamic conquests, to have brought down God’s judgment on the Byzantine Empire. Use of Icons was outlawed, resulting in oppression and persecutions, until the council of Nicaea in 787 (last of the so-called ‘Ecumenical Councils’) restored their use, and again, decisively in 843. While the whole issue of icons and images may seem strange and hard to understand in the West (especially in Protestant circles), it has been, and remains, deeply felt in Eastern Churches as a vital part of faith and practice. Icons related to Holy Week—the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ—hold a special place in the tradition.