Alyosha Karamazov, the protagonist in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, disappoints me as I’m sure Jesus would have if only I understood him as a first century Jew would have. Alyosha is described from the outset as the hero of the story, and as I progressed through the novel, the author repeatedly promised tales of Alyosha’s forthcoming heroics. I eagerly anticipated learning of what Alyosha would do that would qualify him as the hero of the story. I thought, maybe he’ll sacrifice himself for one of his brothers. Or, maybe he will intervene in some violent affair and save the day. Surely, he will do something dramatic to save others and earn the label of hero.
But I was wrong. Alyosha appears powerless to save anyone. At the end of the novel, everyone is left in a pitiful state (the details of which I will refrain from describing for anyone planning to read the book). Alyosha may be the “hero of the story,” but he doesn’t save anyone from suffering.
I wonder if I would have felt the same way about Jesus? If I were a first Century Jew suffering under the oppression of the Roman Empire and feeling rejected by God, I wonder if Jesus would have similarly felt like a heroic disappointment. When he died on the cross, he too failed to actually save anyone from suffering. The few miracles that he did accomplish were hardly exhaustive. They merely pointed to a future that was still out of touch. By and large he didn’t help people. Those around him were left in their suffering, just as the Brothers Karamazov were.
In this way, Dostoevsky helped remind me how disappointing Jesus can be to us today. He frequently doesn’t save us out of our difficult situations. He’s not the type of hero who swoops in to save us from all our problems. He doesn’t rescue me from my mortgage payments, from my illnesses or from those difficult people in my life.
But that doesn’t me he isn’t powerful. Alsyosha, despite not literally saving anyone, did have a profound effect on everyone with whom he interacted. He reformed some troublesome youths. His presence with each of his brothers helped them persevere through great difficulty. He offered a concrete example of moral rectitude in the face of deep depravity, and when he was assaulted violently (even to the point of almost having his finger bitten off) he responds peacefully and with forgiveness. In his own way he did offer a saving presence to those around them. He loved them purely and was a witness to truth and grace in their midst. Everyone knew that he could be trusted, and he seemed to brighten the day of every person with whom he spoke. Alyosha was light in the dark lives of all those around him.
Jesus does the same thing for us now. His loving and constant presence with us is transformative even though it doesn’t change our circumstances. He doesn’t remove the things that afflict us from our lives, but his presence, like Alyosha’s, helps us to do that which is right. Jesus’ presence with us enables us to find meaning and joy in the midst of the mundane and painful. Dostoevsky’s book did an excellent job of highlighting the power of Christ and the call of Christians to follow in his footsteps as light in a suffering world.