“It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble”
The Church does not appear to like this piece of Scripture. The Lectionary, the weekly table of readings used by the main churches, leaps forward from the end of Saint Luke Chapter 16 last Sunday to verse 5 of Chapter 17 this Sunday, leaving out verses 1-4. It is not as though that Saint Luke was the only person to record this saying. Jesus’ warning about caring for his little ones appears also in Saint Mark,
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea ” Mark 9:42
and is also included by Saint Matthew:
“. . . whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea”. Matthew 18:6
Given that it is considered sufficiently important to be included by three of the four Gospel writers, one might have expected that it would be read regularly, particularly when it is a simple matter of following on from where the reading from Saint Luke finished last Sunday. Instead, we jump four verses and it makes an appearance as a reading at the principal service of the day only once every three years, when we read it from Saint Mark.
It’s not as though it is difficult to understand, there is even an expression that something is ‘like a millstone around your neck’ in popular use. Why an apparent desire, conscious or otherwise, to avoid reading it too often?
There are times when the Lectionary seems deliberately to avoid hard, or even harsh words of Jesus, as though there was a particular, theologically correct, picture of Jesus that had to be presented and that certain passages of Scripture do not accord with that picture. Look for the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree in the Lectionary and it does not appear: it’s in Saint Matthew 21:19. The Lectionary takes us up to verse 11 and the next Lectionary reference to that chapter begins at verse 23. Similarly, the cursing is found at Saint Mark 11:14, but if we read the verses prescribed in the Lectionary, we stop at verse 11. Here we have an account of words of Jesus recorded by both Saint Matthew and Saint Mark, and yet it makes no appearance at all in our three year cycle.
Is there not a certain lack of integrity in only including the things that suit us? Doesn’t being faithful to the Gospel mean taking on board the awkward bits, the difficult bits, and the unpleasant bits, as well as those bits that fit the acceptable view of Jesus?
The millstone teaching is a hard one, but it is a teaching in defence of the weak and vulnerable. The ‘little ones’ are not just the children, they are all the powerless people who are trodden on by the strong and the powerful.. Perhaps there is a tendency to shy from this reading because the condemnation of the strong and powerful in this case is not an attack on the civil rulers, it is an attack on the spiritual leaders of the church. It is much easier to stand in judgment on others than to examine ourselves.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin” says Jesus. It is not the authorities who drive the ‘little ones’ away from their faith, it is the people responsible for their spiritual care. Priests, ministers, pastors, have been entrusted with the protection and the nurture of the people in their care and the ordination services do not shy away from the hard realities of what that means. The old Book of Common Prayer service, in which candidates were ordained priest, expressed it in blunt terms:
“And if it shall happen that the same Church, or any Member thereof, do take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue”. Book of Common Prayer 1926
The new liturgy allows for no dilution of the responsibility:
“Yet remember in your heart that if it should come about that the Church, or any of its members, is hurt or hindered by reason of your neglect, your fault will be great and God’s judgment will follow”. Book of Common Prayer 2004
The ‘horrible punishment’, the judgment that will follow from driving people from their faith is put into perspective by Jesus in very graphic terms, “it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”
We need this verse of Scripture, in Ireland, we particularly need this verse of Scripture. This is Jesus’ judgment on those whose abusive behaviour has brought low the Christian church. Little ones, ordinary people, experienced years of clerical domination of life, only to discover that some of the very people entrusted with the care and protection of the church have hideously abused that trust.
The verse points to the need to distinguish between faith in Jesus and membership of the church. Every member of the church is fallible and sinful, which means that the church itself is marred by those very human characteristics. Christianity is about a person it is not about the church, not about any church, yet there are times when the person disappears completely behind the institution. Jesus’ words are a foreshadowing of the time when he knew that human nature would come between people and God, when the church would become a place for power and dominance instead of being about love and service.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin”, Jesus’ words should be part of the weekly confession of the church; keeping them to a Sunday once every three years, we keep at a distance the reality of ourselves.