We talk a lot about the loving character of Jesus, and well we might. But despite the popularity in some circles of pointing out God’s wrath, we rarely seem to notice one thing that really seems to have pissed Jesus off. We find the same language in all three synoptic gospels, in Matt. 18:6-7, Mark 9:42, and Luke 17:1-2. Jesus says that someone who causes “one of these little ones who are faithful to me” to stumble, would be better off if a millstone were tied around his neck and he were tossed into the sea. Or to put a finer point on it, if you drive others away from Jesus, you’re better off drowned.
Obligatory disclaimer: In this current whacko-filled environment I find it necessary to point out that Jesus never told anybody to actually perform the millstone remedy, and neither do I. It’s what we call a figure of speech, and in no way should be taken as an incitement to actual drownings.
Disclaimer aside, I think it’s worth taking a good hard look at what could possibly have gotten Jesus so riled up that a guy who was normally all about self-sacrifice and loving service would–even in hyperbole–turn to such violent language. Interestingly it’s not due to the basic depravity of man so pivotal to Calvinist theology. Rather, it’s to those who create the conditions that drive others–Matthew and Mark both say others who already have placed their faith in Jesus–to turn from him.
The term in Greek is σκανδαλίσῃ, (“skandalise” or its root form “skandalizo” in English text). The ESV and NIV both translate this term “cause to sin,” while both the ASV and NRSV render it “cause to stumble.” It’s used infrequently in the New Testament, but among the references that can give us some insight into the meaning:
- Matt. 16:23, Jesus uses the word to describe what Peter is when he’s just tried to talk Jesus out of going to Jerusalem to die…it’s the “get behind me, Satan” passage. In trying to thwart Jesus’ intention, Peter was inciting him to turn away from what he knew he must do.
- Rom. 16:17, in which Paul warns against people who “cause divisions and create obstacles (skandala) contrary to the teaching they have received, and deceive “the hearts of the naive” (v. 18). This usage sounds closer to Jesus’ usage in the gospels, of “causing these little ones to stumble.”
- The term is also applied to Jesus by both Paul (Rom. 9:33) and Peter (1 Pet. 2:8). Peter clarifies this interpretation when he says that the Jewish establishment stumbled over Jesus precisely because they were disobedient to “the word.” In other words, just being a stumbling block is not evil, depending on who stumbles and what they’re being deterred/diverted from.
There are other references and I won’t list them all. To understand the kind of “skandalon” against which Jesus railed, I think the first two bullets above give a pretty decent understanding: Jesus gets violently angry at anyone who creates a stumbling block that causes another to turn from him.
How do we do this? I recognize that if we accurately portray Jesus as who he said he was, some people simply aren’t going to buy it. This is why, for example, Jesus’ own words turned away a huge crowd in John 6:66 (hmm, never notice that numeric pattern before…ha!). We must be uncompromising with the standard Jesus truly set. But there are many ways in which, I believe, those who call themselves “Christians” turn people away from considering Jesus, through building barriers (stumbling blocks) that Jesus himself never built. Here are some to think about:
- I came across a blog the other day by a couple guys who consider themselves agnostic/atheist because they can’t reconcile all the baggage they learned growing up Southern Baptist, with the reality they see around them. You can read their story at the link…but the (unfairly) short version is that they couldn’t take the cognitive dissonance of a theology that proclaimed God is just while making him look so unjust. Might those who taught these guys “the faith” be guilty of creating such a stumbling block?
- I’ve also written before about how the same issue…the injustice of Penal-Substitutionary Atonement, is one of the major objections to Christianity raised by both Christopher Hitchens and Robert Heinlein. The people who rubbed this notion of “atonement” in the face, not only of these two, but many others, certainly created a stumbling block that I maintain is not Biblical in the least.
- What about the insistence that one must believe in the Trinitarian view of Jesus? This doctrine, as taught in most churches, goes well beyond the claims either Jesus or his apostles ever made themselves (it’s really a Nicene and Chalcedonian doctrine–fourth century A.D.), but our insistence on it is one of the biggest barriers to Muslims, who are rightly taught “God hath no equal,” even considering the other claims of Jesus. (note, if this statement disturbs you, please read my post on Jesus Christ for a fuller understanding of what I am, and am not, saying). Have we created a “skandalon” against Muslims by insisting on a doctrine of Jesus that goes well beyond what is written?
There are more examples, and I challenge the reader to consider them. It’s an important question. We need to maintain a faithful witness to the person, character, and word of Jesus. But what, beyond that, might we be doing and saying and demanding, that drives people away? Do we deserve the millstone?