Deuteronomy 26.1-11 · Romans 10.8b-13 · Luke 4.1-13
On Ash Wednesday Richard's sermon lamented the desperate plight of the people of Ukraine, which they are meeting with such courage; and he stressed that sin, as well as being personal, is corporate and social – its effects pervade the whole of society. There may one man, Putin, at the head of this invasion – is he the personification of evil? is he simply mad? is his ruthless aggression the result of a dependency of anabolic steroids, as some have suggested? But many others, in Russia and beyond, are directly or indirectly complicit, and have been for many years..
I don't intend to continue to comment directly on this cruel invasion, but I thought it would be appropriate to base my thoughts on a Russian novel which we might help us make some connections about suffering as the price of freedom. Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov in 1880. It's a big fat book which perhaps few of us here have read, but at its heart – and often published separately – is the parable of the Grand Inquisitor. It's told by Ivan, a committed atheist, to his brother Alyosha, a novice monk. It's an ironical and ambiguous tale about human nature and human freedom, and takes a hefty swipe at the church. (Ironically, one of the things we cannot accuse Putin of is being anti-religious, unlike his Soviet and Bolshevik predecessors: on the contrary, though he doesn't regard Ukraine as a real country, he sees it as the historic home of Slavic Orthodoxy. He approves of this shared patrimony, though has not stopped the bombing of historic churches and other holy places such as Babyn Yar, Kyiv's holocaust memorial, with the utter absurdity of claiming to de-Nazify a country whose president is of Jewish heritage. We must look elsewhere for the neo-Nazis.)
But although it's a Russian novel, the tale of the Grand Inqusitor is set in Spain. In the tale that Ivan tells his brother, Christ comes back to earth, 1500 years after the resurrection, at the time of the Grand Inquisition in that land. He comes to the city of Seville, and performs a number of miracles. The people recognize him and adore him, but he is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned to death the next day. Late that night – a dark, hot, breathless Spanish night, the air smelling of laurels and orange blossoms, the iron door of his cell is suddenly thrown open. The Grand Inquisitor, holding a dark lantern, slowly stalks into the dungeon. As the heavy door closes, the two come face to face, and the Inquisitor sets down his lantern and begins his long denunciation of Jesus. He has come to tell him that the church no longer needs him, indeed that his return would interfere with the mission of the church; he is an embarrassment, an irrelevance.
The Inquisitor frames his denunciation of Jesus around the three challenges Satan put to Jesus in today's gospel, the temptations in the wilderness: turn these stones into bread, claim power and authority over all the kingdoms of the world, cast yourself from the temple and be miraculously saved by the angels. The devil knew exactly what he was doing (just like those who, to this day, play the role of Devil's Advocate in the RC system of scrutinising the evidence for candidates for sainthood). His temptations were subtle, and went to the very heart of the matter of who Jesus was and what he was about, for on the face of it each of them would surely have advanced Jesus' cause at a stroke: they would have brought him instant fame and popularity. He would have had the people eating out of his hand, bowing down to worship him, in awe of his miraculous powers. Would all this not have proved beyond doubt that he was truly God's Son?
But no, said Jesus, that is not the way in which God was calling him to fulfill his mission, by wowing the crowds and taking short cuts to glory. To succumb to these temptations and sell his soul to the devil would have been a denial of the freedom God had given him, and the freedom which is the birthright of all God's children. His way, his destiny, was to take the harder path – the way of struggle and suffering; not compelling people with displays of authority, but leaving them free to choose, and make their response to the gospel.
But, says the Grand Inquisitor to Jesus, you were profoundly wrong. In your refusal to play to the crowds, you misjudged human nature. The freedom to choose is intolerable for most people, too great a burden to bear, too hard to handle. You have set the bar too high, excluding the majority of humanity from redemption and dooming them to a life of suffering. That is why, says the Inquisitor, we have revised the Christian project. The few who are strong enough to take on the burden of freedom have decreed how people should live, so that they may live and die happily in ignorance, spared from the suffering that comes with freedom. Even though it leads only to 'death and destruction', they will be happy along the way. He concludes, Anyone who can appease a man's conscience can take his freedom away from him. In other words, we, the authorities of church and state, know what's best for people, and we have dedicated our lives to taking away the burden of choice, that intolerable freedom, from humanity.
The parable ends when Christ, who has been silent throughout, makes no answer, but kisses the Inquisitor on his bloodless, aged lips. At this, the Inquisitor releases Christ but tells him never to return. Christ, still silent, goes out into the dark alleys of the city. The kiss is a deeply ambiguous sign, and so its effect on the Inquisitor. Ivan's story concludes inconclusively: The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his ideas. It is a kind of reverse of the kiss of the betrayer Judas, to whom Jesus whispers do quickly what you have to do (John 13.27). Just as Jesus in no way condones Judas' betrayal, so Christ's kiss does not excuse the Grand Inquisitor.
Well, as I said, it's an ironic and provocative parable – like the parables Jesus told; it challenges us, it poses a host of questions, but it doesn't tell us the answers. What are we to make of it? Would the world have been a better place is Jesus had fallen in with the devil's suggestions, and given us an unambiguous display of the power of God, keeping us happy by providing us with bread and circuses even at the expense of freedom?
There have been times, in the history of the church – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox – when the authorities have done just this, and made Jesus seem irrelevant. We know what's best for you, the authorities have said; all you have to do is to obey. That's why, for example, there was extreme reluctance to let people have access to the scriptures in their own language; better to keep the people ignorant, and let the church interpret the scriptures. That's why religious conformity was imposed by law, and non-conformists were silenced. That's why, even today, hard-liners in the church want to boot out those who disagree with them. In this, the church has behaved no better than secular totalitarian regimes, whether communist or capitalist. For all that we pay lip service to the principle of choice (most recently, on the wearing of face masks), those who know what's best for us have plenty of means of controlling and manipulating us; that's why George Orwell's 1984, with the spectre of 'big brother watching over you', dishing out the happy pills, remains a potent modern parable. We know that constant vigilance is needed to prevent freedom from becoming an illusion.
But the fundamental question is this: do we really value the freedom that God gives us, and which Jesus gave his life to secure? Was the Inquisitor right to say that freedom, and the responsibility that comes with it, and the suffering that it entails, is an intolerable burden which we would be better off without? Can you imagine how things might be if Jesus had succumbed to his temptations? Would he be believable? Would he be our Saviour?
Jesus, says today's collect (drawing on a verse from Hebrews), was tempted as we are, yet without sin. The choices he faced were real and agonising; he was not just going through the motions. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, was his prayer before ever it was ours (though as some of you know, I prefer the translation save us from the time of trial). And yet it is inconceivable that Jesus would have chosen the way of evil, and turned aside from what he knew God was demanding of him. For he knew that we were created for freedom, and that freedom is the most precious thing about our human nature. That includes freedom to get it wrong, to commit sin. The alternative would reduce us to mere puppets, with God pulling the strings. Our choices would be illusory, and would have no moral value.
And that is why we continue to journey with Christ, on the harder path that leads from the desert to Calvary, resisting the short cuts to glory, and prepared to suffer with him. The mission of the church has no purpose whatsoever if it does not have the cross at its centre, the life freely given that all might find freedom in him. That is why we must continue to pray for, and support in whatever practical ways we can, the beleaguered people of Ukraine, suffering for freedom's sake – many, though not all, in gospel faith. God preserve us from the Grand Inquisitor's perversion of the truth that rubbishes his gift of freedom. To go that way, truly, is the kiss of death.
Richard Young (Rector)