Pentecost 17B Mark 9:42-50, Luke 7:1-4, Matthew 18:6-10,
Jesus said, “Temptations, stumbling blocks, enticements are surely to come, but whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better that a giant millstone would be tied around their neck and they would be thrown into the heart of the sea.”
How did it happen? There is an acquaintance of mine who sells cocaine. This man has had troubles with drugs in the past and still does so today. Recently, his twelve year old son went over his father’s house. The mother and father were recently separated and divorced, and the father was having a big party, perhaps to celebrate his new divorce. The father saw his son during the party atmosphere and said, “Come on in son and have some stuff.” And so the son joined his father and had some coke. … Jesus said; “Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better that a millstone was hung around his neck and be cast into the heart of the sea.”
How did it happen? There is a friend of mine who received his pink slip from Boeing the other day and he knows that he will lose his job in sixty days. Suddenly, he finds himself in a pickle and doesn’t quite know what to do. All that he knows is that he lost his job and lost his income and lost what he thought was his financial security. A friend of his at work, seeing that he got his pink slip and notice of termination of work, approached my down in the dumps friend and said, “Sorry about your job. You’ll be short of money. Why don’t you use your house to grow marijuana plants? You can easily make $2,000 a week, a lot more than you can make at Boeing. How many bedrooms do you have to grow plants? A basement? That could make you even more money.” … Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better that a millstone was hung around his neck and he be thrown into the heart of the sea.”
How did it happen? It was during my adult instruction class that I met a woman by the name of Doreeen. Doreen is a person who works in the military. She works in the military police and worked in Korea as a military police officer. The woman is an officer. In Korea, it was her job to go as a military police officer and hang around many of the bars in Seoul, Korea, at night in order to keep things under control. In these bars, were all kinds of prostitutes and she became acquainted with them. As she talked to these young prostitutes, she discovered that these particular young women had been sold into slavery as little girls. They had been sold to a buyer by their fathers who needed the money; and the buyer of these young girl was really a conduit to a prostitution ring. The fathers claimed they didn’t know what was happening to their daughters when their daughters were sold into slavery, but it seems that the fathers really knew what they didn’t want to know. They knew for sure they needed the money. And Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better that a millstone be hung around their neck and they be thrown into the middle of the ocean.
How did it happen? Years ago, but during my early years here at Grace, there was a pastor up in Burien who taught the concept of “spiritual connections.” That is, a man becomes connected with a woman who was not his spouse, and then late into the night, the man would dance with his partner until two or three in the morning, looking deeply into his spiritual connections eyes. Gradually at that enormous church, larger than any other church in the south end of Seattle, members ultimately faced numerous lawsuits. There were many divorces, seductions and beatings. It was awful. But those new Christians were taught by their pastor that it was permissible, acceptable and desirable to engage in such intimate behaviors with a person who was not your spouse. And Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better that a giant millstone was tied to their neck, and they be tossed into the middle of the ocean.”
How did it happen? I read a story about a pastor and congregation in Ireland. That pastor teaches the parents and the parents teach their children that it is permissible to hate and be prejudiced against Roman Catholics. It is permissible to throw bricks through the windows of homes owned by Catholics. That it is permissible to harass Catholics and have them run the gauntlet to get into their schools. That is what is taught by these Catholics and by these Protestants and so it is legitimate for both these Catholic and Protestant parents to teach hatred and violence and prejudice to their children. And Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better that a giant millstone was tied to their neck and they be tossed into the middle of the ocean.”
How did it happen? I remember stories about white pastors in the South and in other parts of the United States. These pastors taught the parents that blacks were inferior, that white were the superior race, that white blood was better than black blood, that blacks were intended to be slaves, that slavery was their God-given and Biblical destiny, that blacks lived under the curse of Ham and the parents should teach these God-given, Biblically based attitudes to their children. Both parents and children lived out those values for generations. And Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better for that person to have a giant millstone hung around their neck and it be thrown out into the middle of the ocean.”
It is with this introduction that we approach this teaching of Jesus, this teaching of mild Jesus, of mild mannered Jesus. Jesus, with the pretty blue eyes and curly blond hair. This mild Jesus, who never says anything nasty about anyone. This mild Jesus, the Son of God who loves everything and everyone and never says a harsh word to anyone.
No, not at all. With these words from the Gospel for today, we hear some of the most venomous words in the Bible, the most acidic words in the Bible, the most harsh words in the whole Bible. If you or I cause another person to sin or lead them to sin, it would be better that a millstone be put around our neck and we be thrown out into the middle of the ocean. When you hear those words and actually listen to that statement, it is one of the harshest statements in the whole Bible.
This statement is one of the teachings of Jesus. We can study the parable of Jesus and there are about forty parables. We can study the miracles of Jesus and there are about twenty-five miracles. We can study the teachings of Jesus and there are about sixty teachings. The teachings of Jesus are all short; they are pithy short statements. In the Gospel lesson for today from Luke, there are three consecutive teachings of Jesus. Bing. Bing. Bing. And each of these three teachings of Jesus are not related to each other because teachings almost never are. Each teaching is to be treated as an independent saying, not connected with the teaching before or after. The short, pithy teachings of Jesus are usually from the oldest strata of the New Testament. It seems as if the teachings of Jesus were first gathered by the early church, before the other materials about the parables, the miracles, and the death and resurrection stories.
Today, I would first like to do a word study. Let us focus on some of the specific words found in this Bible passage for today.
Temptations. Temptations are surely to come to all people. The first word we need to study is the word temptation. The word, temptation, comes from a Greek word which means being caught in a trap. I would like you to all think of a trap, like a trap to trap wolves, a trap with steel jaws to clamp on a wolves’ legs or paws. In the middle of this trap, the trapper puts in some raw meat, so a wolf will put his paw to grab the raw meat, and the jaws of the trap will snap shut. What is a trap without raw meat? What good is a trap without the bait? The raw meat is the bait; it is the enticement.
That is what the word, temptation, means. Enticement. To entice. To entice someone else into sin. To entice a child into sin, to ensnare them, to ensnare someone into sinning. To attract them into the trap as you attract a wolf into the trap.
But there is another meaning to this Greek word for temptation. The word means, stumbling block. Imagine someone walking down a path and there is a brick or stone there in the middle of the path and the person does not see it but stumbles, falls, and gets hurt. Temptation is a stumbling block. It comes from the Greek word, scandalon, from which we get the word, scandal, causing a scandal in someone’s life. Temptations are surely to come; that is, stumbling blocks, stones that trip you up are surely to come in life. Yes, we all have experienced events in our lives that were stumbling blocks and we were tripped up by them. If you are honest, you can think of the many occasions in your life where something happened to you and you were potentially tripped up by that incident, and you could have fallen on your face. Or you were tripped up and you took a fall.
Jesus says that stumbling blocks and enticements are certainly part of our worlds. Stumbling blocks and enticements are part of your life and mine through the radio, the TV, the newspapers, through our friends and family and parents, through our own inner thoughts and hidden desires and secret longings. These are all enticements that are part of us. There are numerous stumbling blocks that we trip up on.
Temptations, enticements, stumbling blocks are sure to come; these are part of our everyday lives.
Let us look at another word, the word “little ones.” There are many different means to the phrase, “little ones.” First of all, this word refers to children. So the primary teaching of Jesus for today reads, “Whoever causes one of these children to sin, to stumble and fall; whoever entices one of these children with the candy of sin to trap them into doing evil, it would be better that a giant millstone be put around their neck and they be tossed into the heart of the sea. All of us feel that way about children. Children are young, naïve, innocent of the hardness of life. Children are fresh, budding spirits, budding minds. All of us are instinctively protective of little children who are so vulnerable and don’t know better. The contrast of little children is adults and we adults are responsible for own actions. We know better. Little children don’t. So the first level of the meaning of the phrase, “little ones,” refers to children.
But the phrase, “little ones,” also refers to new Christians. There are many new Christians in our community, people who have very little knowledge of Jesus Christ and the ways of the church. These new Christians come into the church and they are often uneasy and somewhat afraid of what they don’t know about Christ and what they didn’t learn in childhood Sunday school. I have conversations with new Christians all the time, and there is a fresh naiveté to them. Youth in junior high school who are new Christians often don’t say much; they hang out of the peripheries of the church. Now, if one of us causes one of these new Christians to stumble and fall. If one of us causes these new Christians to feel so uncomfortable that they would leave the church, it would be better that a giant millstone… And so the second layer of meaning of the phrase, “little ones,” refers to new or newer Christians. The contrast of these people would be seasoned Christians, veterans of the church, people who have been around Christ and the church for a long, long time. And a seasoned Christian becomes comfortable with Christ and the traditions of the church in a way that a new Christian is not.
A third layer of the phrase, “little ones,” refers to people who feel powerless, weak, and vulnerable. For example, a landowner lives in a Third World nation and owns a great plantation and he has the poorest of the poor people working for him. The landowner keeps his slaves weak, so they do not rise up against him and cause him trouble. Such slaves may even have to steal food and crops from their rich landowner in order for their poor families to be fully fed. The teaching of Jesus is still the same but there is new content to its meaning: whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better for him that a giant millstone… So little ones can refer to the powerless, the poor, those who struggle to survive and have to steal in order to get food.
The fourth meaning of the phrase, little ones, is disciples, followers of Jesus. For example, in the South Africa of old, Dutch Christians were taught that it was permissible for them and their children and grandchildren to live off the poverty of blacks who would be a source of cheap labor for them. So strong, loyalist Christians were taught to make money off of black slaves, so the little ones at this point refers to the loyalist Christians who were taught to sin. Whoever causes one of these loyal Christians to sin, it would be better for them that…
So…we have talked about the word, temptations, and the words, “little ones.” “Little ones” can refer to children, new Christians, the weak or even a seasoned disciple who is led astray.
Now let us talk about the third phrase before us: giant millstone. It would be better that a giant millstone be tied around their neck.
Now, in every home in Israel at that time, there was a small household millstone. Do you have a rolling pin at your house? Well, in those days, every home had a little household millstone to grind the grain. You would put grains of corn on the small household millstone, and then with another rounded rock, you would grind the corn on your millstone. A household millstone could be held in the palm of your hand. Jesus was not referring to that kind of household millstone. RATHER, in every village, there was a mule millstone. If you have traveled in the Middle East in the rural villages, you probably have seen a mule millstone. I have seen many of them. Those mule millstones are large; they are huge. Those rock millstones are about eight feet in diameter and about three feet high. They have a large wooden bar going diagonally across them, and at the end of the long wooden bar is a yoke for a mule or an oxen. The mule or oxen goes round and round and round all day long, round and round on the same track, grinding the grain for the rural village. The mule millstone is enormously heavy, being made of solid rock, chipped into a round slap eight feet in diameter and three feet thick. Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better for that person that a giant millstone would be put around their neck. Jesus was not referring to a small household millstone but a large mule millstone that was located in the center of the village for all people in the village to use.
Jesus said, “It would be better for that person that a giant granite rock millstone was tied around their neck and they would be thrown into the middle of the ocean.” Let us focus on the phrase, “the middle of the sea.” The middle of the ocean, into the very depths of the sea. One who causes another to sin was not to be thrown into an inch deep puddle, not into a shallow lake, not into some nearby pond, not into a neighboring river. But Jesus chose the deepest water he could think of: into the heart, into the middle of the sea. Not by the shore. Not by the bank. Not by the shoreline. But this giant millstone, tied to one’s neck, was to be thrown out into the deepest part of the ocean.
And slowly or suddenly you realize, when you think about the actual words, that Jesus was very serious about this matter. In fact, this is the most venomous, most harsh, more acidic teaching from the lips of Jesus. If you cause another person to sin; if you entice another person to sin (and there is sin all around us and there is temptation all around us.) But if YOU are the one who causes another person to sin, God does not like that kind of behavior in us at all. YOU will be punished with all the wrath of God.
One time, I went to be with a group of pastors who were studying the Bible passage for the upcoming Sunday, and thereby we could do our research for upcoming sermons together. As we studied this text for today, I kept asking a persistent question of the fellow pastors: How is it that we pastors lead other Christians astray by our preaching, by our teaching, by the example of our lives? We can talk about pastors in Ireland leading their congregational members astray and we can talk about pastors in South Africa teaching their members that apartheid is permissible. But those examples are not really relevant for our situations today. The question is: how to do we lead our members astray and cause them to sin through our preaching, teaching and being an example? It was an interesting exercise. We, as pastors, were so blind about the ways we lead other people into sin. We truly could not see it in our own lives. … Let me explain. I am sure that the Irish Protestant pastors and Irish Roman Catholic priests who teach hatred, prejudice and violence; these pastors and priests truly are blind and do not see that they are leading others into sin. …Or the white Southern pastor from a few decades ago who taught racial prejudice and hatred was blind to what he was doing. … Or the pastors in South Africa who taught that it was permissible for Christians to live off the poverty of the blacks. And they were blind to what they were doing. In the same way, could it not be that we pastors and priests today are equally blind to the ways that we are teaching our people to sin. Teaching and preaching, indirectly, that it is permissible to be greedy, that it is permissible to eat more than our fair share of food and to consume more than our fair share of the natural resources and that these issues are not important. Teaching and preaching, indirectly, that it is permissible to be materialists, not by what we say but by what we do. Teaching and preaching that is OK to be rich compared to the vast majority of the earth who are hungry and starving. Teaching and preaching that it is permissible to be incessantly busy, so busy that we don’t have time for God and prayer and a quiet space for the Spirit, not by what we say, but by the busy lives that we lead. Is it not possible that we are causing members of our congregations to sin and don’t realize it, just as the other pastors did in other settings and decades in history? Isn’t it possible that we too lead our congregational members astray?
William Barclay, a British theologian, tells the following story in his commentary on this Biblical text. He told a story about someone changing signs. That is, at an intersection of the road, one sign would point to the city of Seattle and another sign would point to the city of Tacoma. And the boy wondered to himself: How many people could I send down the wrong road if I changed the signs? Your very life is a sign post with a sign on it. Are you sending people down the wrong road or the right road?
And then you come to the end of this text and it says, “Take heed. Be careful. Be aware that you do not lead other people into sin.” That is the point of the text and the sermon for today: we are to be careful as pastors, parents, people, friends, relatives, students: we are not to lead other people into sin by what we say, what we do, and who we are.
O yes, we can quickly talk about teenagers who shop lift and get others to shop lift as well. We can talk about other people doing drugs and getting others to do drugs as well. We can talk about those who abuse alcohol and get others to abuse alcohol it as well. It would be better for them that a giant millstone was hung around their neck and they be thrown into the heart of the ocean. But this Biblical passage isn’t about someone else. It is about us. The question is this: what are the ways that we lead other people into sin?
What does it mean for us, for you and me, to lead someone else into sinning?
Jesus said, Temptations, testings, enticements, and things that cause us to stumble are surely going to happen to all of us. That is life. But any one of …you …who causes a little one to sin, it would be better that a giant millstone was hung around …your… neck and you be thrown into the middle of the deepest ocean. Whew. That does not sound like mild manner, blue eyed, sweet little Jesus boy, talking. Amen.
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