Today’s Gospel reading continues with the discourse between Jesus and the religious leaders who took umbrage at His words and deeds.
Jesus references John the Baptist and the fact that they (the religious leaders) did not seem to have the same problem with him as they did with Jesus. Even though John had harsh words for the Pharisees and Sadducees (“brood of vipers” – Matthew 3:7), there was still an overall permissiveness of John’s ministry. I think this is because John was far less of a threat to them than Jesus. John spoke with fire and brimstone, but the one for whom John came to prepare the way came with a winnowing fork. Jesus was a direct threat to the prevailing religious order of the time, which was keenly focused on paying what amounted to lip service to Moses and the prophets. Jesus spoke with the very authority of God, claimed to be God, and did the things of God (healing, gathering, etc.).
Dostoyevsky gets very close to the heart of these exchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees in The Brothers Karamazov. In the spirit of their dialectic throughout the book, Ivan offers Alyosha a tale of “The Grand Inquisitor,” which is about Jesus returning during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs signs and miracles as He did in the Gospels. The adoration of the people raises the ire of the religious leaders. Jesus is arrested and sentenced to burn at the stake. Before meeting His fate, the Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in jail. The inquisitor informs Jesus that His actions stand athwart the benevolent mission of the churchmen. The religious leaders of the day do not need Jesus. Further, the Inquisitor informs Jesus that He was wrong on many levels, including rejecting the temptations of Satan. Jesus is silent throughout and lovingly kisses the Inquisitor before being banished at his request.
This is of course just like what happened when the Lord Jesus walked the earth in first-century Israel. The religious establishment did not need Jesus; they already had all the answers. The people would come to them, not God. Jesus presents a threat to the egos that make us into mini gods with dominion over our fellow man. In our day, god-like status is assumed and given to those who will give bread and circuses to the masses, just as in the ideal of the Inquisitor. We often do not want the real Lord; we want pseudo-lords. When the light shines into the darkness, it hurts our eyes. We can turn around and cower, clenching our eyes shut, covering our faces, and cursing the darkness. Or we can allow our eyes to adjust to the light, see clearly, and walk toward the goodness of God.