One of the genuine illuminations in the history of my faith was the discovery, in my theological education, that “lead us not into temptation” was a misleading translation of Matthew chapter 6 verse 13. The Greek “peirasmon” certainly has the sense of “testing”, and while the Elizabethan “temptation” of the King James’ Version may have retained something of this sense, the modern use of the word does not. Modern translations which insist on the “testing” are more accurate: “Do not put us to the test”, / “Do not bring us into hard testing” give good impressions of the original, which may refer to the severe testing that life can bring at any time or to the supreme test that the end times of the world might bring.
In the Gosepl story, Jesus experiences his own arrest, trial, torture and murder as a supreme “test”, but has also been tested in his ministry by encounters with people in need as well as religious leaders trying to trip him up. In his suffering he wins through while not being ashamed to reveal his weakness and need; and in the tests of his ministry he copes marvellously, with every- ready compassion, wisdom and humour. He is always the one who is balanced, able to respond either with calm help or robust refutation. This aspect of Jesus’ character fascinates me, because I am always caught unawares by such tests, unsure of my capacity to help someone in need or to reply to sharp questioning. Afterwards, ah yes, afterwards, I can reconstruct an adequate response to need or a smart answer to a challenge, but by then the moment of testing has passed, and may not return in that form. The next test will be different and just as likely to find me wanting.
This is where ten year-old Juliana Ossa of Florida comes in. The other day ahe was swimming in two feet of water at Gatorland, Orlando, when a large alligator clamped its jaws on to her leg. She tried hitting it which didn’t work, but remembering what she had been taught on a previous visit to the park, she stuck two fingers up its nostrils so that the beast could not breathe. It unclamped her leg in order to breathe and she was able to escape with minor wounds. Wow! What coolness in the face of danger, what presence of mind under pressure, what a speedy, resolute response to a test!
I think I would have failed this test. Doubtless I would have struggled, while screaming for help, but I probably would not have remembered the relevant information, and if I had I would have delayed while trying go decide which fingers to use and how hard to push, by which time the alligator would have strolled off with half my leg. The incident also reminds me of all the occasions when I’ve rejected information because I thought it was an overload and unlikely ever to be needed. Once I was in the water I’d be thinking, “Now what was it the stewardess said about inflating the lifejacket or was that to do with blowing the whistle?” So if I’d remembered something about disabling alligators, I’d have been unsure whether to use fingers or toes.
So, as far as practical matters are concerned, Juliana Ossa should remain a aymbol of excellence. Anyone boasting their presence of mind should be asked to take the Juliana test. (Would we need wild ‘gators for this or would pet ones do?)
All this convinces me of the wisdom of Jesus’ prayer, that we should be spared hard testing. In the Gospels, Simon Peter is the one who is always saying, bring it on and I’ll be up for it, only to discover that he is unready. Jesus himself doesn’t meet his fate with the steely disdain of some heroes. Rather, he admits his unreadiness, seeks support from his friends, pleads with God. He doesn’t rush cheerfully to death but allows himself an honest weakness. Then indeed he meets the test, but he does not urge his followers to make light of what life may throw at us. For him, evil can happen, hurt can be done, suffering is real, and they can all break us. He does not expect us to be Superchristian, winning all battles. His prayer should inculcate a realistic humility about our own virtue.
That is not to deny that there may be tests that God wants us to meet and conquer, crucial challenges that either enable us to grow or disable us because we have run away from them in denial. Peter’s denial of Jesus seems to be like this, yet the Gospel tradition shows that even his unreadiness can be forgiven for the sake of the new person he can become. Even if God does not spare me a hard test, he may still spare me the consequences of my cowardice. The prayer itself and Jesus’ forgiveness of the disciples who failed the test, should be a clear instruction his community to be realistic about its members’ ability to face tests, and compassionate to those who foul up, not for the sake of letting us off the hook, but in the hope that we may one day be as ready for our test as Jesus…… or Juliana.