Temptations of the Grand Inquisitor


The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings:  Romans 5:12-21, Matthew 4:1-11


Are these temptations of Jesus by the devil about his career, or about his faith? Are they about who he is or who he will become?

He is about to start a career and the devil tempts him with ways to impress:  Ways to make others believe in him.  Bribe people with bread; wow them with mystical powers; coerce them with worldly or political power.

If Jesus could accept, then he would be able to offer us more bread, more power, more protection; then we would believe in him…his job would be easy. Our job of believing would be easy. But Jesus chooses his own freedom to love over comfort, protection or power. In so doing, freedom and love are his gifts to us.

Or maybe through the temptations the devil is tempting him not to be human, to use his divine status to get himself out of the hard parts of being human?  We might think it is easy to be good and free and faithful when things are going well. When the chips are down, when we find ourselves in the wilderness, feeling hungry, alone, physically vulnerable, weak – is God there?  Is the power of God available to us?  Can we freely choose the good and loving even when it is most difficult?

Yes, I do believe that a significant truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that through Christ, we are shown that the Spirit of the Divine Creator is present in those without bread, without relief from physical suffering, and without worldly power.  The Gospel is an insistence, the insistence of Jesus, that Divine power is not contingent on our position in life.  Our freedom, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is not contingent on our position in life. We are free and empowered by the Spirit no matter who we are or where we are. And therefore, when Jesus finds himself in the wilderness, when we find ourselves in the wilderness, we do not have to sell out to get the Spirit. And nobody, no place, can take our freedom if we choose to keep and hold it.

We also see that Jesus will not coerce us into believing in him.  He will leave us our freedom whether we want it or not.  Dostoyevsky in his book, The Brothers Karamazov, pictures Christ coming back to earth in the sixteenth century, during the inquisition when the church inquired and rooted out heretics and tortured them.  The the grand inquisitor, gets wind of it and promptly has Jesus arrested.  Then the inquisitor goes secretly to meet with him, to tell him why he has been arrested.  The inquisitor goes through the three temptations in the wilderness and says that Jesus blew it when he turned them down. The inquisitor says that people really don’t want their freedom.  They would rather be bribed with bread, or wowed by mystery, or coerced by political authority and power.  The inquisitor has chosen to give bread, and to coerce people, and they are grateful to him for it.

But the inquisitor concedes, “In that Thou was right.  For the secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for.  Without a stable conception of the object of life, man would not consent to go on living, and would rather destroy himself than remain on earth, though he had bread in abundance.  That is true.  But what happened?  Instead of taking men’s freedom from them, Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man that his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering.  And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest forever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and puzzling…Thou didst desire man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely…In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide…Respecting him less, Thou wouldst have asked less of him.  That would have been more like love, for his burden would have been lighter.” (Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamozov. Penguin. 1980.p.247)

The inquisitor goes onto justify himself, saying he has corrected Christ’s mistake, teaching men “that it’s not the free judgment of their hearts, not love that matters, but a mystery which they must follow blindly, even against their conscience.  So we have done.  We have corrected Thy work and have funded it on miracle, mystery and authority.  And men rejoice that they were again led like sheep, and that the terrible gift that had brought them such suffering, was, at last, lifted from their hearts. Were we right teaching them this? Speak! “

Jesus doesn’t speak; he just sits with mild, loving eyes.  So the inquisitor continues to justify himself, to explain to Jesus why he was wrong in resisting the devils temptations.

“Thou mightiest have taken even the sword of Caesar.  Why didst Thou reject that last gift?  Had Thou accepted that last offer of the mighty spirit, Thou wouldst have accomplished all that man seeks on earth – that is, someone to worship, someone to keep his conscience, and some means of uniting all in one unanimous and harmonious ant heap, because the craving for universal unity is the third and last anguish of men.”

The inquisitor argues that all the great leaders of the world have answered that call, to beat men into submission so that there might be peace and unity. Unity, maybe around the power the leaders demand, but unity nonetheless.

It is rarely noted or grasped, that the beauty of Dostoyevsky’s story hinges on the response or lack of response of Jesus. Most argue that this is Dostoyevsky’s destruction of the Christian faith, but I think that while it may be a brutal critique of the Church, it shows a beautiful understanding of Christ, and why he says no to the Devil in the wilderness.  The inquisitor keeps demanding that Jesus speak. “The old man looked for Him to say something, however bitter and terrible.  But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on the forehead.  That was his answer.”  The old man shuddered, then walked to the door, opened it and said, “Leave and don’t come back”.

After all his justifications, after all our chasing after material possessions, distractions by mysterious gadgets, trying to wrestle power and authority to our strength and benefit, after all the ways we compromise our freedom and integrity of faith, after we argue with God that she doesn’t do a good job or doesn’t exist, and therefore we do not need to choose to freely follow Her, the loving Christ walks up to us and gives us a kiss.  God still loves us and shows us tremendous respect. He still thinks, by his grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the power to remain free and loving too.

What is it that will allow us to maintain the integrity of faith when we find ourselves in the wilderness? The Spirit. The Spirit leads us into the wilderness and leads us out, when we find ourselves hungry, or our means of earning our bread is threatened, when there are no angelic protectors jumping out to prevent our bodies from suffering, when we feel powerless and unprotected in society and the political realm?  What will we do? Can we choose to keep the faith?  Can we choose to stay loving?  Christ bets his life that we can.  And when we fail, when we fall short, He doesn’t lower his standards and say it is all right. He kisses us, he lets us know he loves us still, lets us know the Spirit is still alive and well, and that from this point forward, we still have the freedom and the power to follow him.