Dear St. John the Evangelist Parish,
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).
These are harsh words from Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. It sounds worse than harsh, even; it sounds like a mafia-level threat, along the same lines as: “You better wise up or you’ll be sleeping with the fishes…” Jesus is not part of the mafia, though, and while He can be harsh, there is not one act of Jesus’ that is not fundamentally loving. So let’s take a look at why Jesus would sound so harsh on this topic of tripping up young believers, then reflect on instances where we’ve seen stumbling blocks erected, and finally what we are called to do instead.
Why would Jesus say such a thing? I know it got my attention when I heard it. It could be that that is a large reason He said it. I think we live in an age when we may need this wake-up call. Sin— the deliberate choosing to do or not do in a way that contradicts right reason and divine law—is bad. If I commit a horrible deed, I become more horrible. We become what we repeatedly do, and the worst thing, it would seem, worse than any kind of physical suffering, is to become more and more sinful. But Jesus says that there is still a worse fate than just committing sins. The worst thing we can do is not only sin, but to actively encourage others to sin.
Have we seen this? When I think of making one of the “little ones” stumble, I usually think about priests who give immoral advice, or religion teachers that teach heresy, or people in leadership living scandalous lives. Certainly, Jesus meant these instances. But the convenient thing about those examples is that most of us aren’t priests, teachers, or in leadership, so we often think that this is one of those teachings that doesn’t apply to us. But I think we play a bigger part in other people stumbling in their lives than we thought. Have we done anything that discouraged our neighbors? Have we seen temptation coming their way, and not given warning? Have we treated someone as hopeless, and helped make it a self-fulfilling prophecy? We pray that our Father not lead us into temptation—have we ever hoped that someone else would run full tilt into temptation, especially if it would prove us right about them?
What we are called to do instead is to anticipate our neighbor’s needs. If we know someone is struggling, we’re called to walk with them so that they don’t stumble. Instead of waiting for people to fail, we can try to set them up to succeed. Instead of watching people hover around near occasions of sin, we can start trying to arrange for near occasions of grace for those around us. It is better to suffer evil than to commit it, and even the pagans had a sense of this. Jesus goes another step and says it is better to suffer evil than to do anything that helps our neighbor to commit evil. How might we encourage the people around us to live more grace-filled lives? And are we willing to suffer for it?
Parish FOCUS Missionary