Do Sinners Flock to You? Lessons from Dostoevsky – Rev. Sam Ferguson
Readers rightly note that Fyodor Dostoevsky’s genius lay in his psychological insight, whereby his characters embody that strange comingling of virtue and vice, common to every human heart. However, as I’ve been reading his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, I’ve found his genius runs even deeper in spiritual insight, apparent in the spiritual trials and triumphs of his characters.
In The Brothers Karamazov, no character portrays Dostoevsky’s spiritual perception quite like Fr. Zosima, an elder in the Russian Orthodox Church. Standing against the backdrop of a modernizing Russia, where religious traditions are waning, Fr. Zosima represents an authentic spiritual reality, a reality slowly dying inside the staunch Russian secularists. At the outset of the story the youngest of the Karamazov brothers, the idealistic Alyosha, is in residence under Fr. Zosima. In an early scene the following character quality surfaces in Fr. Zosima, which deeply challenged me: Fr. Zosima loved all people, but Fr. Zosima loved sinners most. In Dostoevsky’s words:
“The monks used to say of him that he was attached in his soul precisely to those who were the more sinful, and that he who was most sinful the elder loved most of all.” (p. 29)
The monks’ observation proves true. Persons from all walks of life and in all manner of circumstances flock to Fr. Zosima. As these pilgrims visit the elder in his hermitage, his young pupil, Alyosha, observes that, “many people, nearly everyone, who came to the elder for the first time for a private talk, would enter in fear and anxiety and almost always come out bright and joyful…the elder was not at all stern, on the contrary, he was almost always cheerful in manner.” (p. 29) The elder received the most forlorn of Russian society with compassion, looking past the facade of outer appearances to a common denominator; every human heart longs for light, but is lost in darkness, and all are in need of grace. Fr. Zosima did not make sinners feel dirty; he gave them hope that they could become clean.
Why is this striking? It is so contrary to our typical responses to sin in people and is such a powerful picture of Jesus. In the Gospel’s who do we find drawn to Jesus? Matthew writes that, “Jesus reclined at table and, behold, many sinners came and were reclining with him” (Matt. 9:10). The societal, religious and ethnic outcasts – the sinners – flocked to Jesus. When rebuked by the Pharisees for the company he was keeping, Jesus replied:
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners (Matt. 9:12)
Jesus loved sinners and they flocked to him. We are all aware of this quality of Jesus, but, like Fr. Zosima, do our own lives mirror it?
When I take stock of my own life, I am concerned that those outside the faith may sense judgment from me before love, that those most entangled in sin feel discouragement when near me, rather than hope. The righteousness of God’s people has always been meant – from the time of Israel to the time of the Church – not ultimately to make those living in darkness feel cast away, but invited in (cf, Deut. 4:6-8).
The question, therefore, that Fr. Zosima’s example raises for us is this: how do we become people to whom sinners flock? How do we become people in whom those most entangled in sin find rest and hope? I think the answer is that our love and humility must burn hotter than our judgment. This does not mean we downplay sin; Jesus never sidestepped the reality of sin or its ramifications. However, Jesus looked deeper than the sin to the wound underneath, offering to the repentant forgiveness, acceptance and restoration. Jesus’ goal was never to push the sinner away, but to draw him home. Sinners of all types – myself included – in tasting this love, flock to it.
In a conversation with a particularly dejected widow, whose sin seemed beyond forgiving, Fr. Zosima shares the following wisdom:
“There is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents. A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God’s boundless love…Believe that God loves you so as you cannot conceive of it; even with your sin and in your sin he loves you.” (p. 52)
“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” writes St. Paul (Rom. 5:8). Once recipients of God’s boundless love and grace, may we never forget from whence we were saved. May we never forget that we, too, are sinners. Do sinners flock to you? Perhaps, like Fr. Zosima, we too can have a love that draws even the saddest of prodigals into His glorious light.
*All quotes taken from: Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (London, UK: Vintage Books, 2004)