This post is for our Gospel of John study #35 (see the text reproduced below– all the way below the second picture).
The Grand Inquisitor, in Dostoyevsky’s parable, asks Jesus to justify his claims to freedom and his refusal of Satan’s offer. In the famous temptation scenes in the Gospels, Satan offers Jesus the chance to prove his abilities by turning stones into bread. In Dostoyevsky’s episode, the character Ivan (who speaks for the Grand Inquisitor) argues that the ability to feed the multitudes by bread is the basis for both political and religious authority. Human beings require to have their stomachs filled. Where one aches in hunger, freedom will count as whatever thing may appease one’s appetites and guarantee one’s survival. Thus, if Jesus had wanted a popular following, he should rightly have accepted the Devil’s suggestion, to turn stones into bread.
In John 6, while Jesus does perform a miracle of feeding, he refuses to become a political king on this basis; even though the crowds wish to make him a king, Jesus escapes from their grasp. In effect, Jesus dissents from the Grand Inquisitor’s worldview (as spoken by Ivan) and from seizing for himself spiritual authority on the basis of an economic and political platform.
What is Freedom?
In what does freedom consist? And must our survival be assured (our material needs satisfied) before freedom can be enjoyed? Dostoyevsky provides an answer which bypasses this alternative: a kiss (this resolution will be explained below).
Jesus Refuses the Role of King
In John 6, Jesus continues his miracles by feeding the five thousand (John 6:1-15). The feeding of the five thousand occurs in all four gospels. John interprets this miracle as a sign to the crowds that Jesus is king. Jesus is the long awaited “prophet like Moses,” who was expected to become king while doing miracles–reminiscent of a legendary time in Israel’s history. Just as God fed the people in the wilderness with manna, so Jesus will do so with bread. Yet, if the crowds expect Jesus to be king, it is a role that Jesus himself refuses: (John 6:15) “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”
In this historical period while Israel rose up against Rome, the imperial overlord, a number of leaders performed miracles while claiming to be prophets and kings. One may read about such movements in the works of Richard Horsley here: Bandits, Prophets, Messiahs. Significant for John is that Jesus refuses the role of popular political leader or king.
Later in John 6, Jesus will make the baffling claim that unlike Moses, he does not merely feed people with bread. Rather Jesus is himself the Bread given for the world: (John 6:35) “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus’s refusal may be elucidated, then, by the Grand Inquisitor episode in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Here is the audio book version: Audio Book: Grand Inquisitor. Here is the full text of the episode: Text Grand Inquisitor Episode and here: Grand Inquisitor.
In this episode, Ivan claims that if Jesus were to return, he would be arrested by the Church and prosecuted by the Inquisition, specifically for his refusal of Satan when Satan challenges him to turn stone into bread. Ivan’s challenge pertains also to John 6:15, where Jesus refuses to become an earthly king, whose job is to feed and improve the material conditions of people’s lives.
The masses, Ivan says, require a political ruler who will give bread to eat. Virtue and freedom lack utility and have no substance when economic conditions are unstable. Regarding Jesus’s claim to provide the bread of heaven rather than earthly bread, Ivan urges: “And if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands shall follow Thee, what is to become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly?”
Ivan’s question is alive in our own day: how may we live in freedom if our basic needs are not supplied? Shouldn’t bread come first and our needs be satisfied? Before freedom can be genuinely claimed and lived?
Christ’s Solution: The Kiss
The response of Christ to Ivan’s challenge, in this episode, mirrors the response of his brother Aloysha, who is a disciple of Jesus Christ, and it echoes a scene earlier in the book. In the earlier scene the monk Zosima bows to their brother Demitri. Similarly, Jesus responds with a kiss.
The kiss reverses the kiss of Judas from the Gospels. Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, kisses Jesus to reveal his identity to the arresting party. Judas trades Jesus away for money. Judas has argued that the perfume, which Mary squanders by anointing the feet of Jesus, ought to be sold and donated to the poor. Judas puts material needs above the intrinsic dignity of life itself. Mary, by contrast, lavishes love upon Jesus by making free use of perfume to anoint Jesus’s feet in honor of his role as savior.
Christ’s kiss in Dostoyevsky’s story does the opposite of Judas’s betrayal. Like Mary’s anointing of Jesus’s feet in the Gospel, so Christ’s kiss affirms the intrinsic dignity of life and the human being. Each of us is beloved. Our beloved stature before God, not bread alone, gives us our freedom.
Freedom: The Kiss Reconciles Heaven and Earth
The kiss reconciles heaven and earth. On earth, we need food and bread. In heaven, our freedom is assured. The two realms, heaven and earth, can be discrepant. Love — the kiss — reconciles them. Through love, we know our own worthiness. On the basis of this love, we may create a social order which generously provides, for all, sufficient material resources: bread not stone, the bread of life (love), not the stone of greed and materialism.
John 6 (NIV) Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand
6 Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near.
5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages[a] to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.