It is humorous when Disney goes Mafia. When they take one of the smallest of creatures in the film, a attic shrew, and identify him as Mr. Big, head of the crime syndicate in Zootopia. As the tiny Mr. Big commands his henchmen to “ice” Judy and Nick, and watch the floor panel removed to reveal the ocean underneath, we uneasingly laugh as those old enough to know see allusions the Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone…then we catch mental images of the legendary “cement shoes” and bodies being dumped in the ocean.
It is no laughing matter, though, when the Son of God starts to sound like The Godfather. Yet, that is exactly what we find as we encounter Jesus in these verses this morning. Jesus doesn’t suggest that anyone be saddled with “concrete shoes” or even a “Chicago overcoat,” Jesus, the Son of God the Father, says “If any of you put a stumbling blocks before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Talk about harsh…Jesus puts the mafia to shame. The question is, what gets Jesus so worked up that he sounds like the mob?
Jesus doesn’t usually sound upset and so condemning where he spends most of his life in ministry. He lives and moves and ministers among the sick and sinners that the rest of society has cast aside. He spends time with prostitutes, with tax collectors (who would have also been considered traitors to Israel), with adulterers, and other sinners. He walked with them, talked with them, ate with them, forgave them their sins, and we never once see Jesus go off on them, never once see him suggest that they ought to be sent swimming with the fishes. Yet in these few verses we hear Jesus sounding like a hitman.
So if Jesus deals with all that sin that constantly would surround him so well, again we ask, what in the world gets Jesus this worked up? There are other times that Jesus gets angry (those scenes that I often hear used as an excuse by folks who are short-tempered). Two scenes stand out. The first is when Jesus enters Jerusalem and goes to the Temple. There he finds the money changers and the livestock sales folks. Some folks see this scene and will quickly say that Jesus was upset because the people were selling goods inside the temple courtyards. I’ve heard it used that way to suggest that churches should never have any kind of fundraising efforts. That’s not the case, though. These two groups of people were needed. The money changers were there because a faithful Jew could not make a donation to the Temple using Roman coinage. The Roman coins bore the image of Caesar, meaning they were marked with a graven image. The money changers were needed to provide image free Hebrew coinage that could be used for gifts to the Temple. The husbandry folks were there because people would need to bring animals for their atonement sacrifices. Some would come from such great distances that they were unable to bring their sacrifices with them. Those that brought their own livestock from home would have to have it inspected to ensure that it was without blemish. Now, knowing the validity of the two groups presence, why would Jesus be upset at their presence? Let me put it this way, both involved money…and what does Paul’s letter to Timothy acknowledge as the root of all kind of evil? The love of money. We can just imagine the corruption that would erupt in that setting…and how that corruption would take advantage of and even hamper a believer’s ability to worship God. Now we see why Jesus would have run those folks off with a little Indiana Jones whip action…they were standing between the people and their ability to worship God freely.
Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus confronts the Pharisees. He confronts them over all the rules and regulations, the legalistic views of the faith, that they have imposed on the people, and then have not made any effort to help them. He looks at them and says, “”woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves…Woe to you, blind guides…” Did you catch that? Because these Pharisees and scribes were making it difficult for folks to come into a relationship with God, Jesus called these religious leaders children of hell, children of satan…and later on called them blind guides and blind fools!
Then we come to today’s millstone passage. Some would suggest that this passage, when it talks about “little ones,” is warning anyone against harming any children. Why? Because in the preceding verses, when Jesus is asked about who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven he calls a little child to him, and explains the humility, openness, and acceptingness of a child are key to what it it means to experiencing the Kingdom of Heaven…a Kingdom reality that he expresses elsewhere, is as much present as it is future. However, the truth of the matter is that Jesus is not simply talking about little children, but all that are new to a relationship with God and trying to grow in their faith, the young of the faith, if you will.
Jesus warns against doing anything that might cause a person who is young or weak in the faith to stumble, to fall away from God. Jesus says that there are going to be things that cause people to stumble…that cause people to fall away or backslide. He says stumbling blocks are going to come in this world and cause folks to fall, but you best not be the one who tosses that stumbling block in front of them…. because, according to Jesus, if we were the ones that cause someone to fall away from God, a suffocating death with water filling our lungs as we sink into the depths of the sea (remembering the Dead Sea is the deepest spot on earth) would be preferable to facing God and giving account for what we have done.
What does that mean for us? It means that we are our brothers’ (and our sisters’) keeper. It means we are responsible for more than ourselves. It means that we are responsible, whether intentional or unintentional, for how our actions affect the faith of others.
Paul addresses this in both his letters to the Romans and Corinthians:
“Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble.”
““All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, for “the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.” If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.”
Our actions have to be governed not only by how we believe, but how our actions are going to impact the faith of another. Need a real-life example?
I have a good friend Josh who is vegetarian. I don’t see anything wrong with a good bacon-cheeseburger or pepperoni pizza. In fact, sometimes I catch myself talking about how bacon makes everything taste better in front of him and have to stop myself. Why? Because Josh’s vegetarianism is an aspect of his faith journey. For him to eat meat would be cause for him to question his faithfulness to God. I know others who would laugh at his vegetarianism and suggest he needed to just get over it. I’ve argued, years back, that if I am supposed to take into account a person being a vegetarian when I am serving a meal, that they should take into account that I’m an omnivore, an equal-opportunity eater when they are serving a meal. However, that is not what Paul says, and not the point that Jesus is making. They are both saying that my thoughts and actions, about what I prepare or what I expect them to prepare, all have to revolve them. I have to place them and their faith journey above my own, because God will hold me responsible for how I impact them. That means that if Josh and his girlfriend come for a visit and I prepare a meal, I won’t be fixing shrimp or scallops and telling him that he can eat what I’ve prepared because God really has declared it okay to eat, but that I am to prepare a meal that doesn’t ask him to compromise his faith.
It means that I do not take a drink, not that I do any more, or even cook with alcohol, if there is a chance that I might influence or impact a recovering, or potential, alcoholic to take a drink, even if I believe a glass of wine with dinner is good for the heart.
It means that if the clothing or footwear that I put on, or not wear, has an impact upon someone’s faith, that I must take that into consideration when I get dressed.
It means that what movies I watch with someone, what music I listen to around someone, what conversations I have with another have to take into account the impact that it would have of their faith.
I can hear someone wanting to shout out, “But what about me? What about my rights?” (Because I’ve wanted to shout them out too). To quote Rick Warren in the first sentence of The Purpose Driven Life, “It’s not about you.” To put it plain and simple, to faithfully follow Christ, to have the same mindset as Christ who humbled himself to leave the throne room of heaven to come and live amongst us, means that we become third. (I know there are bracelets, and I think I might still have one, that say “I am second” – reminding us that God is first, but I think we ought to come up with some to pass out that read “I am third.”). God is first, those around us are second, and, for the sake of the Gospel, we are third.
May we all place ourselves third. Why? Well, partially because I would rather not have Jesus go godfather on me and suggest I tie a millstone or anchor around my neck and be thrown into the Back Sound; but primarily because I believe that to honor God the Father, we have to live like God the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit, and live our lives in such a way that we are no longer stumbling blocks, but instead stepping stones leading others closer to God and deeper in their faith.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.