Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The mystery of the millstone

Jesus said to his disciples, “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for that person to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied round his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. So watch yourselves…” Luke 17:1-3

I recently read a novel, set in seventeenth century Amsterdam, about a wealthy merchant who was found guilty of the sexual abuse of a young man. The climax of this grim story is how, before a large crowd of people (many of them pillars of the local protestant churches), he is thrown into the sea with a millstone round his neck.

For a short time (being my usual dense self – I can be embarrassingly slow on the uptake) I was puzzled about the way his execution was carried out. Why drowning? Why a millstone? It was only a little later that it dawned on me… Of course (ping!): The people who did this believed they were acting in obedience to Jesus!

It’s hard to imagine how those righteous religious leaders can possibly have imagined that Jesus was actually advocating the death sentence, even if for an appalling crime. But that’s the way it was. (And things like that don’t only happen in novels…)

Surely all Jesus intended was something like: “It’s a deeply serious matter if you set a bad example or actively lead a younger, more impressionable person to go off the rails. In fact, it’s so serious that you would be better off dead.” (No suggestion of sexual sin, incidentally, though of course that would be covered by it.)

Who are “these little ones” that Jesus mentions? It isn’t entirely clear. In the parallel passage in Mark, the words “who believe in me” are added (Mark 9:42). So, putting the two passages together, Jesus could be referring either to children (and vulnerable people in general), or to adult converts who are new and, presumably, lacking in confidence.

But it doesn’t really matter. The solemn, sobering point is that doing or saying anything that “causes people to sin” is something to avoid at all costs.

Yet again we are reminded that it is a serious mistake to take isolated Bible sayings out of context or over-literally: try doing that with Mark 9:43-47 (or, better still, don’t try doing that with Mark 9:43-47!).

But the fact that a saying is not intended literally doesn’t mean it’s not true and important. And this where all of us, especially those who are fairly mature and experienced in the Christian life, need to take a good hard look at ourselves. Jesus’ brother James warns us that “not many of you should presume to be teachers… because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Mmm.

The question we need to put to ourselves is this: Is there anything about my behaviour, my life-style, my habits, my manner of speaking, my humour, my ambitions, my very “me-ness” that could lead another person astray? We could be talking here about something that is not actually wrong in and of itself, but which sets a confusing example. Beware!

Paul picks up a similar theme in his first letter to the Christians of Corinth. He, of course, is a strong Christian with a robust conscience, so it doesn’t bother him in the least where the meat he buys in the market comes from – for all he knows, it might be the surplus from an idol temple. It is, after all, just meat. But, he says, “not everyone knows this…” And they might think such meat is somehow contaminated by association. So what will they think when they see him tucking in quite happily? So then… “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again…” (1 Corinthians 8:7-13).

The principle is clear. In Christ we have liberty, freedom from petty restrictions and regulations, and that liberty is a precious thing. But it is sometimes good and right to curtail or suspend that liberty out of respect for the weaker Christian – or an impressionable child.

Somebody said to me recently, “I remember something you said a couple of years ago…” When they told me what it was, I shook my head: I had no recollection of ever having said it. But it seems it had seriously affected their way of thinking and even their behaviour. I found that rather frightening. Suppose what I had said had been bad or misleading?

The stark fact is that we can impact somebody else’s life at a deep level without even realising we’re doing it.

Perhaps it’s time to go back to Luke 17:1-3…

Lord God, forgive me for times I may have set a bad example or encouraged bad behaviour in those who might look up to me. Help me, by your Spirit, to be scrupulously careful in the way I speak, act and live. Amen.

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