The Grand Inquisitor and Us

A Sermon Preached on The First Sunday of Lent
at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
March 1, 2020 11:00 am

The readings for this Sunday were:Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; and Matthew 4:1-11.


Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Matthew 4.1


Has anyone here not heard this story before?

The story of the Temptation in the Wilderness is so familiar that we miss its shock value. Because shocking it is. Jesus rejects demonstrating his power, he refuses to show who he is.  He rejects the authority of the Great Tempter, but he does not assert his own dominion over the world. He refuses to show his divine superiority to Satan by casting himself of of a height, instead choosing remain in his human weakness.


Let me as you another question. Have any of you read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and in particular, the chapter in which Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov tells his younger brother Alexei the story of the Grand Inquisitor? If you were Russian you would have read it. Dostoevsky, along with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Chekov, is to Russians what Shakespeare is to we who speak English. The Grand Inquisitor is one of the great passages of Russian literature, as central to them as Hamlet is to us.

The Brothers Karamazov is a great long book, with deep discussions of philosophy and theology. The ostensive hero, Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, is a young man of about twenty years of age, the youngest of three brothers, birthed by two different mothers. Their father is Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, a perfect buffoon of a man whose neglect of his sons leads them to be raised by various relatives. His only concern is with wealth and his own enjoyment. Alexei is testing whether he should become an Orthodox monk, and we encounter him in a monk’s habit. His spiritual father is the Elder Zosimus, who is gravely ill but is sought out for his prayers. The book describes the life of the three sons – Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexei, their servants and neighbours, and their love interests. About halfway through the book a shocking murder takes place, and so it also becomes a murder mystery of sorts.

The Grand Inquisitor

A quarter of the way through the book Ivan tells Alexei a story. He has not finished it, and it seems he intends to write it as a poem. Ivan is the most educated and philosophical of the three brothers. The story goes like this (and the quotations are from the brilliant Pevear/Volokhonsky English translation of 1990):


We are in Spain, in the early 16th century. The scene is Seville, not yet famous for its Barber. The Spanish Inquisition was all too expected in that era. The square before the Cathedral is still scorched from the burning of one hundred heretics the day before, and the smell lingers in the air. Jesus arrives, but this is not the great second coming, but just a momentary visit. He comes “quietly, inconspicuously, but, strange to say, everyone recognized him.”

People are drawn to him by an invincible force, they flock to him, surround him, follow him. He passes silently among them with a quiet smile of infinite compassion. The sun of love shines in his heart, rays of Light, Enlightenment, and Power stream from his eyes and, pouring over the people, shake their hearts with responding love. He stretches forth his hands to them, blesses them, and from the touch of him, even only of his garments, comes a healing power. Here an old man, blind from childhood, calls out from the crowd: ‘Lord, heal me so that I, too, can see you,’ and it is as if the scales fell from his eyes, and the blind man sees him. People weep and kiss the earth he walks upon. Children throw down flowers before him, sing and cry ‘Hosanna!’ to him. ‘It’s he, it’s really he,’ everyone repeats, ‘it must be he, it can be no one but he.’ He stops at the porch of the Seville cathedral at the very moment when a child’s little, open, white coffin is being brought in with weeping: in it lies a seven-year-old girl, the only daughter of a noble citizen. The dead child is covered with flowers. ‘He will raise your child,’ people in the crowd shout to the weeping mother. The cathedral padre, who has come out to meet the coffin, looks perplexed and frowns. Suddenly a wail comes from the dead child’s mother. She throws herself down at his feet: ‘If it is you, then raise my child!’ she exclaims, stretching her hands out to him. The procession halts, the little coffin is lowered down onto the porch at his feet. He looks with compassion and his lips once again softly utter: ‘Talitha cumi’—‘and the damsel arose.’ The girl rises in her coffin, sits up and, smiling, looks around her in wide-eyed astonishment. She is still holding the bunch of white roses with which she had been lying in the coffin. There is a commotion among the people, cries, weeping, and at this very moment the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor himself crosses the square in front of the cathedral. He is an old man, almost ninety, tall and straight, with a gaunt face and sunken eyes, from which a glitter still shines like a fiery spark. Oh, he is not wearing his magnificent cardinal’s robes in which he had displayed himself to the people the day before, when the enemies of the Roman faith were burned—no, at this moment he is wearing only his old, coarse monastic cassock. He is followed at a certain distance by his grim assistants and slaves, and by the ‘holy’ guard. At the sight of the crowd he stops and watches from afar. He has seen everything, seen the coffin set down at his feet, seen the girl rise, and his face darkens. He scowls with his thick, gray eyebrows, and his eyes shine with a sinister fire. He stretches forth his finger and orders the guard to take him.

The Grand Inquisitor later comes to see Jesus in a jail cell. He says to Jesus,

‘Is it you? You?’ But receiving no answer, he quickly adds: ‘Do not answer, be silent. After all, what could you say? I know too well what you would say. And you have no right to add anything to what you already said once. Why, then, have you come to interfere with us? For you have come to interfere with us and you know it yourself. But do you know what will happen tomorrow? I do not know who you are, and I do not want to know: whether it is you, or only his likeness; but tomorrow I shall condemn you and burn you at the stake as the most evil of heretics, and the very people who today kissed your feet, tomorrow, at a nod from me, will rush to heap the coals up around your stake, do you know that? Yes, perhaps you do know it,’

Screenshot 2020-03-01 at 8.28.35 PM

Sir John Gielgud as the Grand Inquisitor

The Grand Inquisitor goes on for many pages, ranting rationally at his silent prisoner. He recalls the story of the Temptation in the Wilderness, and says,

“‘Decide yourself who was right: you or the one who questioned you then? Recall the first question; its meaning, though not literally, was this: “You want to go into the world, and you are going empty-handed, with some promise of freedom, which they in their simplicity and innate lawlessness cannot even comprehend, which they dread and fear—for nothing has ever been more insufferable for man and for human society than freedom! But do you see these stones in this bare, scorching desert? Turn them into bread and mankind will run after you like sheep, grateful and obedient, though eternally trembling lest you withdraw your hand and your loaves cease for them.” But you did not want to deprive man of freedom and rejected the offer, for what sort of freedom is it, you reasoned, if obedience is bought with loaves of bread? You objected that man does not live by bread alone, but do you know that in the name of this very earthly bread, the spirit of the earth will rise against you and fight with you and defeat you, and everyone will follow him exclaiming: “Who can compare to this beast, for he has given us fire from heaven!” Do you know that centuries will pass and mankind will proclaim with the mouth of its wisdom and science that there is no crime, and therefore no sin, but only hungry men? “Feed them first, then ask virtue of them!”—that is what they will write on the banner they raise against you, and by which your temple will be destroyed.

Of course, some people do follow Jesus, and enjoy the perfect freedom which is the service of God. But the Grand Inquisitor says that they are a small minority, a few thousand.

You promised them heavenly bread, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, eternally depraved, and eternally ignoble human race? And if in the name of heavenly bread thousands and tens of thousands will follow you, what will become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not be strong enough to forgo earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly? Is it that only the tens of thousands of the great and strong are dear to you, and the remaining millions, numerous as the sands of the sea, weak but loving you, should serve only as material for the great and the strong? No, the weak, too, are dear to us. They are depraved and rebels, but in the end it is they who will become obedient.

The logical  and reasonable thing to do, says the Grand Inquisitor, would have been to take the Tempter’s offer:

Had you accepted the world and Caesar’s purple, you would have founded a universal kingdom and granted universal peace. For who shall possess mankind if not those who possess their conscience and give them their bread? And so we took Caesar’s sword, and in taking it, of course, we rejected you and followed him.

The Grand Inquisitor and people like him took the offer centuries before when they seized temporal power and began to govern like ordinary princes. In his mind he knew he was making a deal with the Devil, but it was worth it. The lofty ideal of freedom and the life of the Spirit was too abstract for humanity, which needed rulers who would offer them authority with demonstrations of “mystery” and “miracle”.

Ivan ends the story this way:

When the Inquisitor fell silent, he waited some time for his prisoner to reply. His silence weighed on him. He had seen how the captive listened to him all the while intently and calmly, looking him straight in the eye, and apparently not wishing to contradict anything. The old man would have liked him to say something, even something bitter, terrible. But suddenly he approaches the old man in silence and gently kisses him on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips. That is the whole answer. The old man shudders. Something stirs at the corners of his mouth; he walks to the door, opens it, and says to him: ‘Go and do not come again … do not come at all … never, never!’ And he lets him out into the ‘dark squares of the city.’ The prisoner goes away.”

Who Is The Grand Inquisitor?

The temptation which Jesus overcomes in the desert is the temptation of power: of overwhelming the other by one’s ability, of gaining authority by the simple satisfaction of hunger and other basic needs. It is the way of the world, of goodness corrupted. It is the promise give to us by ideologies and economics, and it has led to totalitarianism and cruel, genocidal exploitation. It is the promise given to us in a fallen world by political ideologies.

And yet, these are the powers and principalities that humans have bowed down to in generation after generation. Indeed, at times we become the Grand Inquisitor. As Dostoevsky writes him he is very rational, very persuasive, and even if we disagree with him he nevertheless makes good points. And we are people of the world, even if we aspire for the way of Jesus. The way of the world is the way of power, which is very seductive. It justifies itself as doing the right thing. The Grand Inquisitor is persuasive, and believes that he is right to set fire to hundreds of lives and go on to do so again. This whole passage by Dostoevsky, written around 1880, is eerily prescient of the Bolshevik Revolution that killed millions in the name of the future happiness of the proletariat.

As Dostoevsky writes it, and as the gospels describe it, Jesus overcomes this rationalistic, evil folly with love. By rejecting power, by pouring the divine out into frail human flesh, Jesus shows that true divinity is to be found in sacrificial love, and not just brute power, a love which risked the creation of the world and possible rejection, a love which took on human form in order to serve others. And that, my friends, is how the Church has always persisted in the face of opposition, and how it thrived even when it was compromised. And today, when confronted with indifference, ridicule, and ignorance, it is how we continue: listening, understanding, probably disagreeing, and responding with care for the other.

This is brought home in a passage later in Matthew:

Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ Matthew 20.25-28

On this First Sunday of Lent, between the fourth day and the fifth, may we not be overcome by the powers that would tempt us, but become like the one who loves even those who persecute him.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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1 Response to The Grand Inquisitor and Us

  1. Pingback: Resources for Worship on the First Sunday of Lent | The Island Parson

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