Miracle, Mystery, Authority - February 18, 2013

On the first Sunday of Lent, the readings concern the Temptation of Christ, the first and one of the most important acts of Jesus’ mission. Certainly one of the greatest explanations of the Temptations came from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

“The miracle lay precisely in the appearance of those three questions. If it were possible to imagine, just as a trial and an example, that those three questions of the dread spirit had been lost from the books without a trace, and it was necessary that they be restored, thought up and invented anew, to be put back into the books, and to that end all the wise men on earth—ruler, high priests, scholars, philosophers, poets—were brought together and given this task: to think up, to invent three questions such as would not only correspond to the scale of the event, but, moreover, would express in three words, in three human phrases only, the entire future history of the world and mankind—do you think that all the combined wisdom of the earth could think up anything faintly resembling in force and depth those three questions that were actually presented to you then by the powerful and intelligent spirit in the wilderness? By the questions alone, simply by the miracle of their appearance, one can see that one is dealing with a mind not human and transient but eternal and absolute.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Part II, Book Five: Pro and Contra
Chapter 5, The Grand Inquisitor
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

In the first temptation the devil asked Jesus to turn stones into bread, to mysteriously transform the most common thing on earth into the most needed. The Grand Inquisitor scoffed that Jesus cared more for man’s freedom than his security, saying that were Jesus to make bread from stone, he would have solved the greatest mystery of the world and, at the same time, answered the universal and everlasting anguish of man as an individual being, namely, to know for sure whom he should worship! Jesus, in not succumbing to the mystery of that transformation, opted for freedom for man.

In the second temptation, the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down . . . for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you.’” In short, the devil asked him to create a miracle. The devil, explained the Grand Inquisitor, said of this that if man rejects miracles, he rejects God. But Jesus’ answer turned the argument completely around, saying, in effect, that a man who believes in God has no need for miracles, which are, in effect, crutches for his lack of faith. Jesus’ answer was that we are not to tempt God. Indeed, the implication is that the devil’s demand to trust God and throw oneself down was actually the opposite of the case, namely, that it was in not tempting God that man showed his trust in Him.

This temptation was a precursor to the taunting Jesus endured on the cross, when the crowd demanded that He prove that He was the Son of God by coming down from the cross. The Grand Inquisitor explained that Jesus, not wishing to enslave man by a miracle, would have loved man more by not demanding so much from him.

In the final temptation, the devil took Jesus to a high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, saying, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus’ answer was not one about the gifts offered but, rather, about the giver, the authority of the source of the gift, “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.”

As a publisher, one who has subtitled these ramblings “a blog on publishing,” I should mention that each of the answers that Jesus made to the devil began, “It is written.” It shows the permanence in communication that speech cannot supply.

Dostoevsky wrote about the three temptations in terms of miracle, mystery, and authority, and in all three, a lesser lesson is the transition from childhood to adult. In each case, Jesus reversed what the temptation aimed at. In the miracle of the first temptation, He eschewed a materialist vision of man’s place in the world, showing that freedom was more needed, more central to life, than security, that life itself was mysterious and wonderful, made greater, though more trying, through the freedom granted.

The reversal in the second temptation showed that the true miracle was not, as the devil wished, for Jesus to tempt God into saving Him as he threw Himself down, but rather that he rejected that seeming miracle for the real one, to live in faith rather than demand miracles . . . we might say, with St. Paul, to put away childish things. Life and faith are the miracles; temptations are the cheapest stuff on earth.

Lastly, the authority and the gifts in the third temptation are likewise reversed by Jesus, that the giver is more important than the gift, that what we own with Him is infinite whereas what we gain from the devil may best be exposed by reference to the ancient Romans, whose conquering generals would be allowed a “triumph,” a parade through the streets of Rome, but one in which a slave was required to stand next to the general as he guided his chariot, whispering in his ear that all glory is fleeting.