I’m not a biblical literalist. And as far as I can determine, Jesus wasn’t either. Or I can at least hope that he wasn’t!
If I’m wrong about that, I fear that a lot of my Christian sisters and brothers could be in a whole heap of trouble, given the threat Jesus leveled against his disciples about their potential mistreatment of the “little ones.” (See Matthew 18:6-7, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:1-2.)
Now, most everyone who looks at these parallel passages seems to agree that, in this instance, Jesus probably wasn’t talking about children as such, but rather “newcomers” to the company of disciples following Jesus.
Jesus is telling those disciples who had been with him a while that, realistically, everyone stumbles in the faith now and then – “occasions for stumbling are bound to come,” he says – and that evidently this can be excused or tolerated, especially with a little repentance offered by the sinning or stumbling party.
But it is an entirely different order of magnitude if a disciple is the cause for another follower of Jesus – and most especially if the other is fairly fresh in the faith – to stumble and sin.
In that case (causing another to sin), the threatened penalty is extremely harsh. True, Jesus doesn’t hand down a specific sentence, but only tells the disciples that “it would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
Did you get the gravity of that threat? It would be better to drown in the depths of the sea for causing a little one to sin and stumble. That has to mean that the punishment for causing another to sin will actually be worse.
In my nonliteralist theological stance, and my presumption that Jesus shared this stance, I’m assuming he was exaggerating here since I can’t think of a more terrible death than helplessly drowning with a weight around my neck.
But it is still quite a threat.
At the very least, it should get our attention.
My guess, however, is that most of us think this causing-the-little-ones-to-stumble threat is to be related mostly to personal moral and religious matters. In the same way, we usually understand the directions and prohibitions of the Ten Commandments to be issues of personal (rather than social or public) morality and piety. And I’m confident that Jesus surely included such personal sins and stumblings in his threat.
But don’t we have to ask ourselves as Christians in a political democracy whether some of us are causing other followers of Jesus – maybe even “little ones” in the faith – to sin and stumble by encouraging them to take political positions and actions that are diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus?
I’m thinking here, for example, of political positions and actions in which tax policies are adopted that benefit the rich far more than the poor – if they benefit the poor at all. After all, Jesus clearly teaches that wealth itself is a huge hurdle to authentic faith and that his followers need always to care for the poor.
Or how about political policies that consistently and unrelentingly widen the economic gap between the wealthy and everybody else, when the New Testament teaches a sharing of wealth so that all may flourish?
What should we make of political proposals that advocate the reversal of a national health care insurance policy (that significantly increases the number of people covered)?
Then there’s the matter of seeking support for cutting off financial assistance for those who have become unemployed because of the reckless policies of not just global financial firms but the government itself, when these are precisely the people Jesus told us to care for.
The list could go on and on.
Let me be clear: My concern is not for the non-Christians who advocate these policies, all of which are fair game in an open democratic polity.
My concern is specifically for the Christians who advocate these political policies that are so contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
An even greater concern is when these supposed followers of Jesus try to persuade other disciples of Jesus that supporting these political policies is a key element of their Christian faith – particularly when no effort is made to explain how the positions can be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus.
That comes awfully close, it seems to me, to causing another brother or sister in Christ to stumble and sin.
And, whether taken literally or not, for that Jesus levels quite a threat.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.