In the last entry I shared how shocking the imagery is in Matthew 18 – more so than I think we often realize. In the midst of a conversation about learning to embrace the humble posture of a child, Jesus suddenly goes into a rant that is unmatched anywhere in Scripture:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” (Matthew 18.6-9)
The question begs to be asked: What could provoke the Prince of Peace to threaten perpetrators with as graphic of a warning as this? What could possibly make his blood boil to the point that he would flow right into a tongue-lashing that includes everything from a boulder tied around your neck to your eyes being gouged out? It is absolutely stunning to me.
This is one of those texts where I’m not sure if the translation from Greek to English is as helpful as it could be. At the center of this rant is the warning to avoid causing these “little ones” to “stumble.” What comes to mind when you picture what it is to cause a little one to stumble?
We all bring our own biases to the Bible, and I am no different. During my junior high and high school years I went to an uber-conservative youth group, and one of the requirements of our weekly gathering was to break into same-sex “accountability” groups. Basically that meant you sat with 4-5 of your peers, alongside with a youth leader, and you confessed everything you did wrong over the previous 7 days.
Somewhere along the way we were taught that the best verb to use when your describing indiscretions was the word “stumble.” The teenage boys in my group were chronically guilty of doing things they weren’t supposed to do, and the confession usually sounded something like this: “It was an up-and-down week, and I’m afraid I stumbled in a couple of areas.”
One of the reasons we liked that word is because it acknowledged guilt, yet didn’t sound too harsh. To “stumble” was a minor indiscretion, at least according to our glossary. It was to commit a foul, but not a flagrant one.
I think that bias is one of the reasons the potency of this passage was often lost on me. Jesus seemed to be disproportionately bent out of shape for a seemingly small offense. So what if a person causes a little one to “stumble.” I stumble all the time in my spiritual life, and I don’t expect to be dropped to the bottom of the Atlantic for my mistakes – why does that become the fate for those who cause a little one to stumble?
Eventually it dawned on me that I should further examine this word “stumble,” since it is clearly at the center of that which is making Jesus’ blood boil. Once I looked it up, the passage immediately took on a different tone.
The Greek word translated as “stumble” is skandalizō. Any guesses what English words derive from that? Scandal (noun)/Scandalize (verb) are direct derivatives of this, and sound far more serious than “stumble” (as a matter of fact, there are a number of English translations that use the word “scandalize” in Matthew 18, which I personally believe communicates a much clearer picture).
What do we mean when we use the word “scandal” in today’s world? I looked it up in 10 different dictionaries, and found very similar themes. A scandal is usually a byproduct of something unethical or immoral, and often involves some abusive combination of sex, money, or power. A scandal is almost always public in nature, and the disgrace of the public indiscretion usually sends shockwaves through a number of different circles.
Our modern usage of the word scandal is probably more than sufficient to convey what Jesus was getting at, but when combined with its ancient usage it takes on a frightening tone. In the 1st century world in which Jesus was speaking, skandalizō was a common word used for hunting. It described a very specific kind – the most common synonym I found was “snare” or “entrap.” Skandalizō was the pursuit and entrapment of an unknowing prey with the intent of killing it.
When Jesus uncoils a warning towards anyone that “causes one of these little ones to stumble…” he is not describing some small, meaningless, trivial act. He is directing his comments towards anyone that is on the wrong end of a scandal. It is an immoral, unjust, and dangerous action towards a vulnerable child.
That changes the meaning and tenor of this text, doesn’t it? When Jesus gets into a conversation that starts with the pursuit of greatness and transitions towards the necessity for child like faith, he can’t help but take the topic all the way to its logical end. He decides now is an opportunity to underscore just how esteemed little ones are in the economy of the kingdom, and just how much danger they are in by the forces of society.
It almost seems as coming in contact with a child became the trigger for this intensified conversation. He pulls a little one into the middle of the circle as an object lesson for the disciples, but then something seems to light on fire inside of him. The text suggests he adds a pause when talking about children: “If anyone causes one of these little ones…. those who believe in me… to stumble (skandalizō)…”
When I am reflecting on this text, I often wonder what Jesus was thinking in that moment. As he drew his breath and prepared to finish, what images flashed through his mind when thought of children being scandalized throughout the ages?
Maybe it was images flashed of the horrible abuses and scandals that had happened to children throughout the corridors of history.
Maybe images flashed through his mind of the scandal that wiped out all the boys in his neighborhood when he was born. In an attempt to find and kill Jesus as a newborn, Herod gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under. How old do you think Jesus was before he discovered the truth about this horrible scandal? How old do you think he was before he realized that all of the babies of Bethlehem had to die so that he could live?
Maybe images flashed through his mind of scandals that would happen to little ones in the future, in our time. Maybe he thought of little ones trapped in the sex trade, or children forced to become military soldiers. Maybe he thought of the inexcusable reality of millions of children who don’t have access to food or clean water. Maybe he thought of children in our own country and city who live in the most prosperous country in human history and yet 1 out of 5 live in poverty and in daily danger from the trappings that come with that.
So what is it that makes the blood boil of God incarnate? What is it that touches a part of his soul that is unmatched by any other topic?
In a word, it’s children.
There is something about the sacredness of children that draws out the warmest parts of Jesus. And there is something about children being in danger that brings out the most intense fire from him.
There are a lot of things that Jesus cares about, and as we become more and more like him we will care about those things too. But if you want to be certain that you are on the right side of what Jesus is doing in this world, start caring about children in harm’s way.
Jesus doesn’t like it when there are individual children being harmed by individual perpetrators (“woe to the person through whom they come…”). Jesus doesn’t like it when groups of children are being harmed by systemic forces (“Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble!” Interestingly “world” is the same word translated “government” or “system.”)
We sing a cute little nursery rhyme song whose lyrics say, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” For most of us that probably feels like a safe and silly song, and drums up images of Jesus patting little 2-year old’s on the head and wishing them a good day at school.
Matthew shows us that when we sing those words, we are actually describing one of the most intense and even intimidating aspects of Jesus’ personality.
Does Jesus love all the little children of the world? Absolutely. And because of that love, his blood boils when little children are put in harm’s way. So much so that he will drop any word bomb necessary to get us to understand just how serious that is.
I’m not meaning to be preachy, but this is something that has impacted me a great deal. It’s clear that Jesus was dead serious about protecting children in harm’s way. I think it’s something we should be dead serious about too. I hope more of us will become serious about that, and I hope more of us will integrate this passion into our life direction.
Whenever we find a personal or systemic threat against children, we can know that the fires of Jesus are burning. He’s looking for some of his followers to take it as seriously as him, and for us to do something about it.
Will that be you?