Jesus is about thirty years old when he begins his ministry. Now, as
we learn from Luke, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returns from the
Jordan River, where he has been baptized, and is led by the Spirit into
the wilderness. For forty days, the fully human Jesus will be tempted
by the devil.
The first thing to understand about the temptations is that for
someone like Jesus, determined always to do good in the world, the
temptations are tempting indeed. Satan does his most destructive work
among us not looking at all like Satan but rather looking like God’s
special agent. He appears in Revelation (3:11–18), as a lamb, a symbol
for Christ; in Matthew as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” (7:15). The
story of the Fall of humankind in Genesis 3 begins with the words: “Now
the serpent [the metaphor for evil] was more crafty than any other
creature the Lord God had made.” Now, while Jesus is in the wilderness,
the devil quotes Scripture to back up his position.
In his great chapter “The Grand Inquisitor” in the 19th century
novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky has contributed much to
our understanding of the nature of the temptations. The eminent literary
critic, Lionel Trilling said that this chapter from The Brothers Karamazov
is the best single piece of fiction from the last two hundred years.
(You can, by the way, get the chapter free from GOOGLE simply by entering
“The Grand Inquisitor.”)
In Dostoevsky’s story, Jesus appears suddenly and quietly in the
midst of the terrible Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century and is
quickly arrested by the ancient cardinal carrying out a terrible purge
of anyone who would challenge his church authority. The Grand
Inquisitor, head of the church, comes to visit Jesus in jail. While
Jesus never speaks, the Inquisitor makes the arguments Jesus would make
and then rebuffs them.
The Inquisitor begins by saying that the statement of the three
temptations is in itself a miracle. All the wisdom on earth, he says,
could not have invented anything in depth and force equal to the
temptations put to Jesus by Satan.
When Jesus refuses to turn the stones into bread, he refuses to
provide bread for the world: for farmers in times of drought, for
homeless children, for the wandering stranger. Satan was giving Jesus a
chance to solve the world’s most obvious problem once and for all, but
he refused. Imagine Jesus’ temptation! Jesus will not feed the human
family that way. Rather, he will give himself in love and generosity so
that we will build a world in which we love and feed one another. In the
building of such a world, we grow.
Many believe that when Jesus fed the 5,000, he and the disciples
started just such a “love chain reaction.” The people already had plenty
of food with them hidden in their flowing robes, but no one wanted to be
the first to share. As soon as Jesus and the disciples generously
offered what they had, however, all those stingy people reached into
their robes and offered everything they had. All present then had plenty
to eat, with a great deal left over. If only we could share our
bread—what we have that sustains life—like that!
The Grand Inquisitor rejects Jesus’ stand and says that he expects
far too much of humankind. Human beings will never learn to share their
bread and their wealth with others, he says. “Respecting man less, Thou
wouldst have asked less of him,” the Grand Inquisitor says. “That would
have been more like love, for his burden would have been lighter. Man
is weak and vile.” And must be taken care of.
Next, Satan offers Jesus the miraculous powers that will convert the
world to his side. Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the Temple and
let all of humankind see that the angels “will bear you up, lest you
strike your foot against a stone.” (Here the Inquisitor is quoting Psalm
91:12.) Jesus did perform many miracles to heal the sick and to make the
broken whole. Throughout his ministry, however, he refused to be just a
miracle worker, one who would dazzle people in such a way that they
could not help but believe.
In C. S. Lewis’s words, he would not “ravish” the world with his
miracles. Jesus’ miracles always required a faith response, and it is
the faith response that gives growth. “Blessed are those who have not
seen and yet believe,” Jesus says—making the same point—to the doubting
Thomas. (John 20:26–29)
Finally, Satan offers Jesus political power over all the “kingdoms of
the world.” Everyone at the time of Jesus was looking for a political
Messiah, a new King David to free Israel from the despised and often
cruel Roman occupation, a Messiah who would rule with peace and justice
for all. The Grand Inquisitor did bring a kind of peace in his time, but
it came with a very high price: terror, violence, burning people at the
stake. It was the same kind of peace that Saddam and other tyrants have
brought in our generation. The peace that Satan promises is like
Jesus would not force people to accept his authority. He firmly
rejects this kind of power. He wants the people of the world to choose
to follow him.
Jesus will rule—but as a servant king, eventually raised high upon a
cross, a crown of thorns upon his head. He wants us to learn to govern
ourselves with peace and justice, and—once again—in learning how to
govern, in the process, we grow!
Many important teachings emerge from the Temptation Narrative and
from Dostoevsky’s interpretation of it. I want to focus on just two of
the teachings: the craftiness of evil and the extremely high view God
has of each of us.
We learn over and over again from Scripture (and from centuries of
experience) of the power of Satan who disguises himself in what seems
good. The whole Marxist-Communist experiment designed to promote
justice and equality for everyone failed in part because it did not take
into account the human propensity for evil, for striving for absolute
power… The American pursuit of wealth can promote good things for
everyone, but, disguising itself in the good, it can also lead to
terrible selfishness toward others and when the pursuit of wealth
becomes the main thing, it leads to despair.
The worst kind of despair according to the novelist Walker Percy, and
he got it from Kierkegaard, is not knowing you are in despair.
Kierkegaard called that thing angst. People may think they are happy
with more than enough but maybe they are happy in only a very
superficial way, the way the Grand Inquisitor wants people happy,
One way to see through the disguises of Satan is ask questions,
carefully examining our life. What is really going on? Is what I am
doing really bringing life to the world? Could my family, my political
party, my tribe—could I—just possibly be wrong? My hope is that
Christian communities will help us to ask and answer questions like
that. Oliver Cromwell in 17th century Britain once said famously to the
Scottish church leaders: “I beseech you by the bowels of Christ; think
it possible that you may be mistaken.” At times, maybe you and I are
mistaken. Judge Learned Hand quoted Cromwell, adding that the spirit of
liberty is “the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”
Satan is very persuasive and understands human weakness and the ease
with which we can fall into his net. But Satan, like the Grand
Inquisitor, does not begin to understand the great potential of Adam and
Eve, of generic man and woman—us! Satan does not understand our
potential to push back, to grow in love, understanding, and courage.
Satan and the Grand Inquisitor do not know about us mortals. We are
created in the very image of God, says the writer of the first chapter
of Genesis, just a little lower than the angels, says the Psalmist. The
underlying theme of the New Testament is that each of us, every one of
us is worth living for, worth dying on a cross for. Imagine that!
As a young clergyman, I wanted to believe that, but I wasn’t so sure.
I had gotten very involved in anti-death penalty work because it seemed
so antithetical to what I was learning about the Christian faith, namely
that each of us no matter how far we might fall, each of us is
redeemable. Jesus died for those on Death Row too.
I wanted to believe that but I wasn’t so sure, and I had to find out
for myself. (I always have to find out for myself, usually learning the
hard way!) So I went to work in prisons, getting to know men who had
committed unspeakable crimes. I led small Bible study groups in the New
Orleans Parish Prison, mostly listening. I never want to diminish just
how terrible some of the crimes were. But if I had to describe the
groups, as the inmates reflected on the Bible stories, I would have to
say they were very much like church Bible studies I have led over the
years. Those who work in broad-based Christian programs in prison, like
Kairos, will tell you the same thing.
One evening, several security officers abruptly ended the group I was
leading and hustled me out of the prison and hustled the inmates off to
lockdown. James Bullock, a man doing a life sentence after spending
several years on Death Row for murder, they hustled off in a different
I found out the next day that one of the inmates on lockdown had gone
a bit crazy and held a guard with a sharp knife right at his throat. For
an hour or more, James, who was head of the inmate council, talked the
man down and got him to release the security officer. This man, James
Bullock, that society had decided was worthless, irredeemable, a
monster, who should be destroyed, proved them all wrong. He saved the
life of his jailer. No one is irredeemable.
The most counter cultural thing we say in our church comes in our
Baptism service when we vow to seek and serve the Christ in all persons,
loving our neighbor as ourselves. This is not some sentimental twaddle.
It is right at the heart of our faith. Our church expects us to take
most seriously the notion that Christ does somehow live in all
Not just in the James Bullocks, but in those my friends on the left
want to write off as vile, intrinsically evil, people like those CEOs
who get their corporations to pay them 400 times the salary of the
lowest paid employees, 400 times! They earn in one day what it takes a
parent of two children, struggling to put food on the table, pay the
rent, and pay for the bare necessities, what it takes that parent to
earn in an entire year.
Our Christ lives in those obsessed by greed and blinded by
insensitivity just as surely as Christ lives in the likes of James
Bullock. And under certain circumstances I could see them risking
everything to save the life of a stranger. Under certain circumstances,
I could see those same CEOs selling everything to give to the poor and
to follow in the way that Jesus lays out for them, for us. Millard
Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, and his wife did just that
when they were young multi-millionaires.
People are better than they think they are, infinitely better than
the Grand Inquisitor thinks they/we are. In resisting the Satan and the
Grand Inquisitor, Jesus shows an extremely high and hopeful view of you
and of me and of all God’s children. He will not turn stones into
bread; it is our job to feed each other. He will not prove himself by
magic, by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple; it is our job to make
the leap of faith. He will not take control of our political life; it is
our job to create just governance.
But Jesus is not at all blind to evil, to sin, and he wants us to
discern that sin, that evil, not just in those others out there but in
ourselves. And he wants us to fight against that evil. And what is that
evil? It is whatever that keeps any of God’s children from having a real
chance at a good life, keeps them from being the people they were
created to be. It is whatever that separates us from God.
We are not the vile puppets that the Grand Inquisitor imagines. No we are creatures made in the very image of God. And we can live the way we
were created to live, especially with the help of a loving community,
like this emerging Cathedral worshipping community or your own church
There is a very instructive passage in the Gospel stories when Jesus
literally attacks evil spirits that possess a man. (Mark 1:24–26) He
casts them out. But he does not attack the man who carries the evil
spirits. That man, he loves, he heals. As individuals made in the image
of God, let us cast out that evil wherever it exists, but let us also
learn to love the ones who carry that evil—even when it is us! In so
doing, we hate the sin but love the sinner, always.
In Dostoevsky’s story, the Grand Inquisitor finally lets the still
silent Jesus out of prison. On the way out, Jesus kisses him on his
frigid lips. And then we are told…that the kiss will long glow in
the old man’s heart. So maybe there is hope even for him. But that is