Stumbling Blocks and Little Ones - Mark 9:38-50
Updated: Dec 20, 2022
The first apartment that my husband and I lived in was 450 square feet.
We were newlyweds, trying to get used to living in the same space,
And I kept tripping over my husband’s shoes.
He would kick off his size 12 sneakers in various locations, and just leave them there.
And since there was not much room in our apartment,
I would inevitably come along and stumble over them, crying out through gritted teeth, “Jonathan….!!”
So of course, the size 12s are the first thing I think of when I hear the word, “stumbling block.”
Jesus uses it in our gospel lesson today in a startling way.
“If any of you [disciples] 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.”
You don’t really mean that, do you?
It makes me think maybe Jesus talking about something more than accidentally leaving shoes around.
The Greek word on Jesus’ lips here is skandalon, translated as stumbling block.
It was originally referred to the trigger of a trap set to ensnare an animal.
It later came to mean any kind of trap that could ensnare person or beast,
Including ways that entrap people in sin.
Our English word scandal comes from this same root,
and refers to an action or state of affairs regarded as reprehensible, causing public outrage.
It’s a personal or public sin that snares others in its wake, causing anger and outcry.
Perhaps this is why Jesus seems to show no sympathy for this kind of sin (or sinner).
The damage is not simply to one person, but to a chain of innocent bystanders.
This kind of sin wounds a whole community.
I think it is worth noting that Jesus uses the word translated as ‘little ones’, to describe those tripped up.
The Greek word translated here is mikros, which can literally mean a child.
It can also mean someone of lower rank or lesser experience.
I think it is likely he meant both, as Jesus teaches about both children and novices in the faith in this chapter.
Whether it is a child who needs to be welcomed,
or someone without credentials, like the person casting out demons who wasn’t part of Jesus’ band,
Jesus expected his followers to be a model of grace.
He would not tolerate coercion, false motives, competitiveness,
or anything that could entrap someone else in the cycle of sin.
I find myself reacting in several ways to these strong words of Jesus.
On one hand, Jesus seems punitive in a way I am not used to:
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off!
Words about hell and unquenchable fire make me uncomfortable.
But they point to another response to Jesus’ uncompromising stance.
Gehenna, the word translated as hell, was a ravine a south of Jerusalem notorious for pagan infanticide.
It echoes the damage that Jesus himself is pointing to, acknowledging the truth
that the one who puts a stumbling block in front of a little one also suffers by their own hand.
The ‘undying worm’ and ‘unquenchable fire’ were stock images for the destruction of evil in the Old Testament.
Thinking of it this way, Jesus seeming intolerance is actually his deep desire
for justice and healing on a systemic level.
He will not tolerate the cycle of victimized and perpetrators.
Jesus has come, in fact, to end the cycle.
I think this is a very important point.
Because most of us carry wounds from our childhoods.
Some wounds were inflicted unintentionally, but this doesn’t make it any less wrong or hurtful.
Many of us know both sides of the story:
As parents we do our best, but we sometimes we cannot seem to change
the ways in which our own issues impact how we treat own children.
I recently read a Toni Morrison novel entitled, God Bless the Child, which touches on these issues.
The novel gives voice to many different characters, who each grapple with their own childhood wounds.
It begins with a light skinned mother who, having internalized the racism around her,
cannot accept her dark skinned newborn.
The mother’s antipathy for this child plays out throughout the novel in different ways—
In the attempts of the child to please, in her career choice, in her relationships.
When at the end of the novel, the grown daughter is going to have her own baby,
Her mother reflects once again on her own parenting.
She is unapologetic and says in her head to the daughter she barely knows:
“Listen to me. You are about to find out what it takes, how the world is, how it works
and how it changes when you are a parent.
Good luck and God help the child.”
They are the final words of the novel, and when I closed it, I realized
The deep compassion that author had for each of the characters in the book.
Those final words of the mother who seemed to start it all,
but who actually was in part simply a product of her environment, spoke volumes.
Toni Morrison did not excuse the actions of this loveless mother.
She in fact chronicled the way the tendrils of antipathy grew and choked that which is good.
But at the same time, she showed the humanity of each character,
And that in their blundering way, they were each trying to do their best.
As I contemplate this difficult passage, in the end I think that Jesus was clear eyed:
he saw the potential in his own followers for destruction.
At the opening of this Gospel lesson, the disciples evidently cared more about allegiances than healing,
Trying to stop someone from casting out demons because he wasn’t among their group.
Jesus wanted to communicate in no uncertain terms that harming a little one,
Whether that person is vulnerable due to age, rank, or experience, is unacceptable.
At the same time, Jesus’ final words, like Morrison’s, point to compassion:
“For everyone will be salted with fire.
Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?
Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Salt is a healing agent—salt water draws out the infection from a wound.
Fire is a purifying agent --precious metals are refined in fire.
Jesus’ words point to the potential for identifying and removing
that which infects or tarnishes the natural beauty of God’s creation,
making room for healing and peace.
Ultimately, I believe this is good news for us.
Because all of us incur and inflict wounds.
All of us have experienced being trapped in cycles of sin, as the innocent,
Or as the one willfully or unwittingly placing stumbling blocks.
Today we hear Jesus proclaim a dual message:
Placing a stumbling block in front of a little one is NEVER ok.
With Jesus, there is compassion.
Compassion enough to redeem all sinners, all stumblers, all setters of snares and blocks.
When we stand with Jesus, we acknowledge our need for his grace
We identify and stop abuse among us.
We care for the wronged AND the wrong doers.
We have salt in ourselves, and open ourselves to the peace and the healing of Jesus.