May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts always be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
This morning I want to set Jesus’ temptations within the context of another story from a novel by the great 19th century Russian Feodor Dostoevsky. The novel is his last, and it is named The Brothers Karamazov. I am doing this because I believe it is one of the finest, most powerful interpretations of Jesus’ temptations I have ever read. While I have done the editing here, the credit belongs to the author, and if you are moved to read the whole piece of about 15 pages I am putting a link to the text I used along with this sermon on our web site.
“The Grand Inquisitor” scene is built around a “poem” written by the oldest brother Ivan who is sharing his writing with his youngest brother Alyosha. Ivan is a self-proclaimed atheist and he is especially critical of the Church of Rome and the Jesuit Order, who have a lot of power in that church and were likely the dominant order in Spain where they began. They vow a special oath of allegiance to the pope. Ivan is brilliant and cynical. Alyosha is very insightful and a person of faith.
Ivan’s story begins one evening in a plaza in Seville in the 16th century, the height of the Inquisition and the burning of heretics in huge auto-da-fes, the burning of heretics at the stake, often many of them at a time.
That night Jesus is seen walking around the plaza. He has not come with the majesty of the prophesied second coming. Jesus is simply dressed and walks through the crowds, looking at everyone with a benign smile, and occasionally raising his arm as a sign of blessing. No one speaks to him, yet many recognize him because of the wonder of his presence. Many reach out to touch him and are healed when they do.
On the edge of the crowd, with his guards nearby, stands the tall, gaunt, almost ninety year old Cardinal Grand Inquisitor. He has put aside his gorgeous cardinal’s robes and is wearing an old, rough, monkish cassock, but everyone who sees him recognizes him. When he sees Jesus, he makes a subtle gesture and his guards move in to arrest Jesus and throw him into a cell in the city jail. The crowd, in fear of the powerful Cardinal, without any protest, bows down en masse to him. He blesses them and they disperse.
The Inquisitor enters Jesus’ cell and begins by saying: “You may not utter a word, for if You do it will change everything that has been written about You.” Jesus sits in silence.
The Inquisitor refers immediately to Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, saying that they are so brilliant, that if we were to gather up all the world’s greatest intellects, they could never come up with anything better. He sees them as central to Jesus’ relationship with God and the legacy he left to the Church.
He also reminds Jesus that in transferring authority to bless and forgive to Peter and the disciples, he gave everything over to the pope, and now everything rests with him alone, and the Inquisitor tells him: “You have no business to return and hinder us in our work.” Jesus sits in silence.
When the Grand Inquisitor talks about the temptation for Jesus of turning stones into bread, noting that Jesus fasted for many days and must have been starving, he reminds Jesus that He quoted scripture: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The Inquisitor affirms this insight, but adds: “An irresistible power was offered to You to show a man bread and he will follow You; who can resist bread? Man not only has the desire to live, but faces the problem of what to live for.”
“You enlarged that freedom. Have You forgotten that to man even death is preferable to a free choice between the knowledge of good and evil?” Jesus sits in silence.
The Grand Inquisitor goes on with his lecture to Jesus: “There are three unique Forces on earth—Miracle, Mystery and Authority and You have rejected all three.” Jesus sits in silence.
“When the tempter took You up to the pinnacle of the Temple, urging You to jump to show that God would save You lest You dash Your foot against a stone, You knew that would have tempted the Lord and if You jumped You would have lost all faith in Him. Could any other have resisted this? Is human nature calculated to reject miracle in the most terrible moments of life? You hoped man would follow Your example and remain true to his God without needing miracle to keep faith alive. Your refusal to come down from the cross was due to the same determination—not to enslave man. Look at what You have done, You have left man weaker and lower than You ever imagined.” Jesus sat in silence.
“We corrected and improved Your teaching and based it in Miracle, Mystery and Authority, and men rejoiced once more in being led like a herd of cattle.” Jesus sits in silence.
“Why do You look at me so penetratingly with Your meek eyes, in such a silence——I do not need Your love, I reject it and do not love You. We are not with You but with him, and that is our secret. We took from him the gift that You rejected when he offered it to You on the mountain, saying, ‘All these nations will I give You, if You will fall down and worship me.’”
“Did You never dream of the possibility that a time would come when man would exclaim that truth and life cannot be in You, for no one could have left them in a greater perplexity and mental suffering than You. You are to be blamed for the destruction of your own kingdom.” Jesus sits in silence.
“Who can rule mankind better than those who have possessed themselves of man’s conscience and held in their hand man’s daily bread?”
“We will make them work like slaves, but during recreation hours an innocent child-like life full of play and merry laughter. We’ll even let them sin, and they’ll love us more, and we’ll take their sins upon ourselves, for we so love the world that we are willing to sacrifice our souls for its satisfaction.” Jesus sits in silence.
* * * * *
Alyosha cannot stand any more and he breaks in: “But all that is absurd! Your poem is a glorification of Christ, not an accusation as you meant it to be. It is Rome—not all, but the worst of the Roman Catholics, the Inquisitors and the Jesuits you expose.”
“Your Inquisitor is impossible. Who are these keepers of mystery who took upon themselves a curse for the good of mankind? The Jesuits are merely a Romish army making ready for a temporal kingdom.”
* * * * *
In the last scene, the Inquisitor waits for his prisoner to speak. Silence weighs on him. He saw Him listening, eyes fixed penetratingly and softly on the face of his jailer, not going to reply. The old man longs to hear his voice, better words of bitterness and scorn than His silence.
Suddenly, He rises, slowly and silently approaching the Inquisitor. He bends towards him and softly kisses the bloodless, four score and ten year old lips. That is all the answer. The Grand Inquisitor shudders, a convulsive twitch at the corner of his mouth.
He goes to the door, opens it, and addressing Him, says, “Go, go, and return no more…do not come again…never, never!” and lets Him out into the dark night. The prisoner vanishes.
* * * * *
Alyosha asks, “And the old man?”
Ivan replies, “The kiss burns his heart, but the old man remains firm in his own ideas and unbelief.”
(Alyosha grieves because he knows his brother remains firm in his own ideas, as well.)
- * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
To me Dostoevsky captures both the essence and the universality of Jesus’ temptations. On one hand, temptation is always personal, some longing or desire within us that we are trying to resist if it would lead us astray, however we define that in a particular way for ourselves, such as when we set aside a favorite treat or pleasure for a while. It is also personal on the other hand in our trying to avoid a particular responsibility or, shall we say, healthy choice. The universality comes in when we might be trying to lead others away from doing what is best for them, or going the opposite direction; whether that be with our children, the people we work with, or the people for whom we are seen as an example. Take something simple, like protecting the environment. It is personal to have to do the work of separating garbage from recycling, but the examples we set are universal. Of course, a further problem is that we do some things so mindlessly that we do not even think of any consequences.
The depth of Dostoevsky’s basic premise for this story reminds me how mindful we need to be in this time of Lent, when we do an examen of conscience and more intentional and spiritually healthy living.
One last thing: did you notice the line when the Grand Inquisitor says, “for we so love the world that we are willing to sacrifice our souls for its satisfaction.” Listen to the contrast in what is said about Jesus, (which he did not even claim for himself), that “Jesus so loved the world that he was willing to sacrifice his life for its salvation.” To sacrifice one’s soul is to sell it. To sacrifice one’s life is to give it away. What can be cheaper than to sell one’s soul for anyone’s satisfaction? What could be dearer than to give one’s life away for another’s salvation? Alan preached that wonderful sermon based on the lesson that asks us whether we are going to choose death or choose life. Here is that question again. Amen.
+James L. Jelinek, Interim Rector, Trinity Church, Newport
Weblink to text referred to and quoted is Project Gutenberg, EBook of The Grand Inquisitor, #6 in the Dostoevsky series; translated by H.P. Blavatsky.