Sermon: “Teach Us to Pray for the Good”

When Jesus taught us to pray “Deliver us from evil,” he may well have had in mind the Jewish sense of cultivating the ‘good impulse’ within ourselves — what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”– and not feeding the ‘evil impulse.’

Teach Us to Pray for the Good

The Rev. J. Carl Gregg

27 February 2011

Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland

“Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”  (Matthew 6:13)

“Do not bring us to the time of trial.” (Luke 11:4c)

We have arrived at the final petition of Jesus’ most famous prayer: “Lead us not into temptation.”  In our line-by-line study, we began with the initial address of “Our Father in heaven.” Then we moved to the first set of three petitions about God’s name, kingdom, and will — only to find ourselves this week at the end of a second set of three, more personal requests for food, forgiveness, and deliverance.  Next week we will turn to the concluding doxology — “the kingdom, the power, and the glory” — before moving into our Lenten study of Bruce Epperly’s book Holy Adventure.

To look briefly at the difference in this final petition between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, we see that Luke’s version — as is typical — is shorter and only asks “Do not bring us to the time of trial.”  Matthew’s version is almost twice as long as Luke’s. Matthew exactly echoes Luke’s opening “Do not bring us to the time of trial” — but then adds “but deliver us from evil” in the King James Version, or “rescue us from the evil one” in the New Revised Standard Version.

I would also add that both versions include an important theme that we have seen throughout our study: Jesus is teaching us to pray in the plural — not “deliver me from evil,” but deliver us from evil.  Indeed perhaps one of the most significant and central themes Jesus’ prayer teaches us again and again is that any salvation or liberation ultimately will come to us not individually, but through the communal process of living into the kingdom of God — of “building the beloved community.”

Throughout this sermon series, we have also regularly considered some of the potential Jewish antecedents to Jesus’ prayer.  Accordingly, this present petition has strong parallels to part of a Jewish evening prayer that may well have been popular during Jesus’ day.

The line from the prayer in question says “May the good impulse rule over me, and may the evil impulse not rule over me; and protect me from an evil occurrence and from evil illnesses; and may evil dreams and evil thoughts not disturb me.”  This prayer — which Jesus may have known and even prayed himself some evenings — may be able to help us address an important concern of whether God would ever “lead us into temptation.”

On that note, I invite you to listen again to the beginning of this ancient Jewish evening prayer: “May the good impulse rule over me, and may the evil impulse not rule over me.”  Many historical theologians have noted that Judaism does not share the notion of either a “Fall from Grace” or of “Original Sin” that dominates some Christian traditions.  Instead, a Christian bishop named Augustine of Hippo popularized these notions in the 4th century, more than 300 years after Jesus. Today, more than 1,700 years after Augustine, his perspective has become so pervasive — especially through his influence on later writers such as Luther and Milton — that many of us read scripture with unintentional Augustinian biases. The upshot is that the verses in Genesis which Augustine understands to be about the “Fall” and “Original Sin” are understood quite differently by many Christians as well as by almost all Jews — even though all these groups are interpreting the exact same text.

Whenever I teach the Bible, one of my recurring themes is to point students to what the text actually says — as opposed to what they think the text says or what they have been told the text says. The notion of a “Fall from Grace” or “Original Sin” is a case in point.  As we have discussed before, the text of Genesis merely talks about a “fruit,” but from Milton and from art history, we reflexively think not of a generic fruit, but specifically of an apple — even though there is no mention of the word apple in the entire book of Genesis, much less in the Garden of Eden!  Along these lines, James Kugel, a Hebrew literature professor at Harvard notes that “the phrase ‘Fall of Man’ is not to be found in the Genesis story, nor is there any mention of sinless existence in Eden, nor is the serpent identified in the story as the devil (he is just a talking snake). All these familiar elements are actually the creation of ancient interpreters” writing centuries after the original text was composed and edited. Kugel continues that “It is actually quite surprising how many modern scholars persist in referring to this episode as the ‘Fall of Man’ as if that were the plain sense of the text.”

Instead, Judaism more commonly has a sense of humans being subject to both good impulses and evil impulses. By performing mitzvot — that is, by observing the commandments  — you cultivate the good impulse within yourself. This concept is similar to the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s understanding — from more than 300 years before Jesus — that practicing virtuous actions can cultivate certain habits of character — literally inculcating or habituating these ways of acting into our selves.  Similarly, there is an American Indian legend of a young member of the tribe who approaches an elder in anger about a friend who has been disloyal. The elder famously says:

I too, at times, have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do. But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like drinking poison yourself and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times. It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. This first wolf lives in harmony with all creation, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. But the other wolf is full of anger. The littlest thing will sends this second wolf into a fit of temper. This wolf wants to fight everyone, all the time, for no reason. This second wolf cannot think because the anger and hate is so great. But it is helpless anger, for this anger changes nothing. Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit. The young person looked intently into the tribal elder’s eyes and asked, “Which one wins?” The elder smiled and quietly said, “The one I feed.”

I share this story and these related reflections with you because it is possible that when Jesus taught us to pray “Deliver us from evil” he may well have had in mind some sense of encouraging us to cultivate the good impulse — what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature — and not to feed the evil impulse.

Jesus, of course, is an example of what a human life can look like if we cultivate the good impulse instead of the evil impulse — if we pray earnestly with our lives (and not only with our lips), “Deliver us from evil.”  But, as we have seen, Matthew’s version of Jesus’ prayer says not only “Do not bring us to the time of trial” but also “deliver us from evil” — or even more provocatively in the New Revised Standard Version, “rescue us from the evil one.”

In this latter sense, perhaps Jesus is teaching us to pray for resistance to the temptations such as those Jesus himself faced in the desert after his baptism. As the story is recorded in Matthew’s fourth chapter, Jesus was first tempted to meet his own bodily need for bread. Next, he was tempted to test God by throwing himself off the highest point of the Temple in the hope that God would save him. Finally, he was tempted to worship the tempter himself in exchange for worldly riches — but as Jesus will teach us to pray next week, “the kingdom, and the power, and the glory” belong to God alone.  But Jesus could have acted differently in each of these three situations. He could have, in other words, chosen to follow the evil impulse instead of the good impulse.  As a prime example of what it looks like to feed the evil impulse, the apostle Peter later succumbs to precisely three temptations — paralleling Jesus earlier three temptations — when he denies knowing Jesus exactly three times before the cock crows.

This noticing perhaps provides me with the opportunity to say that I do not think God ever brings us to the time to trial. One popular saying is that “God will never put more trials on you than you can bear,” but I think this saying has more in common with the book of Job than with Jesus. In Job, God and a figure that could perhaps best be understood as the personification of the “Devil’s Advocate” perspective in an argument seeks to “bring Job to the time of trial” in order to test his faithfulness to God.

In such as situation, Job would be right to pray — on behalf of himself and his family — “rescue us from the evil one,” but I do not think that either God or “the devil” actually makes cosmic wagers on human life. In contrast, I find compelling the idea of Jesus teaching us to pray for deliverance from the evil impulse. Indeed, in my experience God is that which in all things, in all times, and in all events is luring us and prompting us and emboldening us toward siding with the good impulse. We have free will, but we do not always choose to hallow God’s name. We do not always choose to follow the way of God’s kingdom. We do not always follow the path of God’ will.  We do not always share our daily bread, nor do we always practice forgiveness. Nevertheless, my experience is that no matter what the situation, God is always encouraging us and prompting us — but never compelling or coercing us — toward the good, the compassionate, and the way of love. In light of Jesus’ prayer, how is God calling you to pray for the good, to feed the good impulse, and to ingrain within yourself the habit of love toward God and neighbor?



1 For a study of Jewish prayers with parallels to this petition in Jesus’ prayer, see Philip B. Harner, Understanding the Lord’s Prayer (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 108-109.

2 Harner, 111.

3 On Augustine’s role in shaping a theology of “Original Sin,” see Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (1988).  For two more recent surveys see the more scholarly Sin: A History by Gary A. Anderson (Yale UP: 2009) or the accessible Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs (HarperOne: 2008)

4 Krister Stendahl famously traced the Augustinian-Lutheran bias in many readings of Paul in his landmark 1963 essay “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” which was later republished in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles.

5 James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (2007: 51).

6 Kugel, 700, fn 2.

7 For a contemporary and inspiring understanding of Genesis, good, and evil, I cannot recommend highly enough Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness.

8 President Lincoln’s famous phrase is from the final paragraph of his First Inaugural Address: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

9 On Peter’s denials, see Matthew 26:69-75.

10 See Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics.

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