Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. 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. So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you. – Luke 17:1-6
Today’s passage is about stumbling. Something we all do whether we admit it or not. I find it reassuring that Jesus acknowledges we will all stumble. It isn’t really a question of whether we will stumble but when we will stumble and how that stumbling will come about. We are all flawed followers no matter how much we think we have it together.
Jesus is sharing this wisdom with His disciples who are struggling to figure out what they are supposed to be doing about leadership, being in community, and caring for one another. It speaks to our role in protecting, encouraging, and supporting one another as our wondering souls work out what it means to faithfully follow God even when we stumble. In the version of this story in Matthew 18:1-6 Jesus makes it clear that we also need to become like little children for this to work, meaning we need to be humble, innocent, and curious.
Jesus has a particularly harsh rebuke for those who cause other people to mess up. These people will have a meeting with a millstone, “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”. I don’t know about you but this hyperbole is an effective way to get my attention. Drowning is on the top of my list of ways I would like to avoid leaving this world.
Since the subject of this story is stumbling I thought it might be interesting to explore some of the physical reasons people stumble. Perhaps there is interesting metaphorical meaning we can plumb from the depths here. In no particular order these are the ways I could think of people stumbling: 1) uneven terrain; 2) lack of light; 3) self-imposed disequilibrium; 4) fatigue; 5) physical or mental dysfunction; 6) someone intentionally trips us. Jesus is mainly addressing the last one here. Let’s take them one at time and see where they lead.
The first one is uneven terrain. Some of the most difficult hiking experiences I have had have been on or near what is called “scree” out west. This is basically a cascade of rocky rubble that creates a slope of very unstable and movable rocks. When one builds a trail across this type of terrain the trail maintenance crews have their work cut out for them. As you walk every rock moves and you have to really pay attention where you are putting your feet or you will end up with either a sprained ankle or a unplanned detour down the mountain. The spiritual parallel would be navigating situations or philosophies that are unstable, shifting, and liable to cause us harm. Things like witchcraft, spiritualism, or an obsession with death and dying. Best to avoid these paths if possible.
The second stumbler is lack of light. Most of us have experienced this one at dawn or dusk when we are squeeze more out a day than the daylight allows. The result can be banged shins and twisted ankles for sure. Sufficient light allows us to judge distances and avoid obstacles. Light is often a metaphor for the love of God and the understanding we can gain by following Him. We are to be children of light, always seeking the light in dark times.
The third is kind obvious. When we ingest drugs or alcohol with the intention of altering our mind and body we should not be surprised when we stumble and fall. I get that some have valid reasons for taking pain killers and even using medicinal medications, but when these palliatives become our source of comfort rather than God we have a problem. I suppose the only way to sort out the motivations for the “medication” is to look inward and ask ourselves why we are seeking solace in these things rather than God? God wants to carry us like a son or daughter but we have to allow Him to do so.
Number four is something most of us can relate to from a hike or urban adventure. We went for hike a few years ago with some friends in the Columbia Gorge and we decided to do a loop hike which sounds like a great idea right? New things to see all the time and no retracing of steps along the same stretch of trail. Well long story short once we committed to this hike we figured out that it was going to be a more challenging journey than we had anticipated. We survived and made it back to the cars before dark, but we were really tired and stumbling our way over roots near the end. Fortunately we were on this difficult road with friends and we were in no real danger. Spiritually speaking I encounter this sort of fatigue fairly often, sometimes because I have chosen my path poorly and other times waves arrived without warning. Jesus offers new wine after such difficult roads for those willing to partake of it.
Five is in some ways the most challenging way that some stumble. There are people who have physical and mental challenges that make it difficult to maintain their equilibrium. Jesus healed many such people with physical and mental challenges. Sometimes there was a spiritual component to the disability and others seem to have just been given physical challenges with which to navigate this land of oblivion. I do not pretend to fully understand this and I probably will not gain a full understanding until I have crossed the river that no one can cross with God’s help.
Finally we arrive at the one that Jesus has chosen to focus on here, getting “help” in our stumbling from someone else. This is clearly important to Jesus and so it is important for us to chew on this as well. Jesus explains the dynamic here “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” So not only are we to avoid causing others to stumble but we must be prepared to help them get up and on their way again when they do stumble.
In practice this is challenging. We all know of someone who has failed to live up to the ideal they were preaching, a famous pastor, a church leader, or a trusted friend When someone falls short of the ideal they profess, which by the way we all do, we think of them as hypocrites and tend to distance ourselves from them. Jesus is not saying that we should excuse the sin these people have committed, but if they sincerely repent, or turn around, from the stumbling path we are to forgive them and help them to embrace the one who can lead us to the undiscovered country.
Wow that turned into quite a set of rapids and riffles, but I think the take home message for me is that we need to be as quick to extend grace to others that stumble as we expect God to extend it to us when we stumble. We will all stumble. What is important is what we do after the fall.
Prayer: God help us to reach out to others that stumble and help us to accept the grace you offer when we stumble.