Pope Francis's Lord's Prayer Reveals How Problematic the Bible Can Be

The Pope's suggestion to revise the Lord's Prayer as traditionally recited by Christians the world over is, I'm sorry to say, wrong. Not theologically (a judgment I'll leave up to the faithful), but literally. I'm sorry because his version is nicer, and I like it better. But whether we like it or not, on this, the Bible is clear. And the biblical witness is all we've got. In both versions (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4), Jesus's prayer asks God not to lead us not into temptation/trial. It does not ask that God would help us from being so led. The original Greek of the texts that we have and from which our translations come uses a verb in the aorist subjunctive that within its context cannot mean other than "lead us not…"

Yes, we don't have an original Bible, and some ancient manuscripts differ from the biblical. Yes, Jesus didn't write anything that we have and may have meant something else. And yes, Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic, so the biblical versions may themselves be translations. But they are what we have. They are what has endured in the canonical text that gives us the Lord's Prayer. And they say, "lead us not…"

The problem is not with how to edit but how to understand it as it is. Truth is, the Bible is full of such conundrums – texts that defy our expectations. Take Isaiah 45:7, where God says "I created good and evil"; or how God tells the satan to afflict Job (in the severest ways short of death) simply to win a wager, to make the point that Job is a super righteous dude (Job 2:1-6). Or consider that it is God who hardens the Egyptian pharaoh's heart to prevent the pharaoh from liberating the Hebrews until after God had performed wonders and plagues (Exodus 9:12). Or remember how King David was incited by God to action for which God then punished not only David but the whole nation (2 Samuel 24:1-25)?

These Hebrew Bible/Old Testament texts are just as much part of the Christian Bible as the New. And the New Testament has some zingers of its own. Think about how Jesus said to the rich young man that to follow him, he needed to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Not figuratively, not metaphorically, but literally. Or how in Christ there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28), but women shouldn't be allowed to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:34). The Bible is a messy, messy book with all sorts of unsettling and sometimes flatly contradictory info. The problem isn't so much figuring out what we want the Bible to say as figuring out how to deal with what it does say, especially when that's surprising, bewildering, contradictory, or just plain outlandish to us.

In the case of the Lord's Prayer, present discussions have overlooked a critical thing: its collective nature – the "us" parts of it. We're accustomed to approach prayer as an individual thing – me/I/my. But this is all "us." There is a long tradition within biblical texts of collective guilt/sin and collective forgiveness and reconciliation. "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins," the prophet Isaiah proclaims (Isaiah 40:2). Individual complicity or innocence is irrelevant here. It's the people, the group as a whole that God deems had erred, did time, and is restored.

Such collective judgment makes us, individually-minded folks, uncomfortable. But there it is and in much of the Bible, too. The Lord's Prayer, which we tend to recite as our personal plea to God, is actually collective. We pray that all may have bread, that God would forgive not me my personal failings but us for our collective wrongs. In the petition at issue, Jesus directs people to ask that God not lead us into temptation/trial. With such a collective nature, it gets political fast: that God-fearing folks would not let simplistic notions of righteousness lead them to adopt destructive agendas for their communities, our nation, and our world.

The Bible's rich complexity demands engagement of heart and mind, not literalistic application of select texts. This prayer that we've inherited reflects that – an earnest plea that even in our desire to be and do as God wills that we not end up actually doing wrong, damaging or otherwise undermining the very health and wholeness the world so needs. Rigorous learning and study informed by compassion and self-less desire should inform us. Head and heart.

But hey, if we go ahead with this Lord's Prayer revision to reflect what we believe about God, I submit another – equally minor and equally based on what we believe about God. I propose that it be the "Our Mother" for a while. I'm not joking around. Think about it. Don't we all agree that God is above, beyond, or otherwise not bound by gender? The Bible begins with a declaration of God as equally male and female (Genesis 1:27). We know the Bible comes from patriarchal circumstances and that those informed ways of talking and even thinking about God, hence the whole He/Him/Father language. But today, mothers are just as much (often more often) heads of households and families and as fathers. And we know that equality is a better way forward. So I'm suggesting that if we can't come up with a neutral word ("Our Parent" sounds awfully sterile), then why not use the alternative gender at least for the next two thousand years? Just to even things out. Our Mother, who art in heaven. It has a nice ring.

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