|Jesus is excellent at shock-value statements. Excellent.|
My mini-study began as research on a post about how sex and worship are on a level with one another, and it ended with a fairly fascinating realization regarding a verse and a bible story I'd known for years.
It's a story reflected in three of the Gospels -- Mark, Luke and Matthew -- and we know from experience that if God wants to emphasize something in his word, it gets repeated.
Flashback: Jesus is asked by one of his disciples (you can read the whole story here) about who will be the greatest in the kingdom of the Heaven. It's a selfish request from selfish men, who size one another up and ask for special favors on more than one occasion.
But Jesus isn't about to cater to their worldly wants. We're talking about one who has the power to calm the wind and the waves, and he's about to make a few waves on his own.
Jesus responds in a way that likely surprised them, calling a child over to sit on his knee and explaining to his followers that the greatest in the Heaven will be the ones who humble themselves like children. Jesus then goes on to make an interesting statement.
"If anyone causes one of these little ones--those who believe in me--to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea," Jesus tells his audience.
For the Jews, who would have understood the basic rules and prohibitions of their culture extremely well, that statement would have been mind-blowing.
A large part of Judaic law centered around preserving life -- even at the cost of violating minor laws. There's an extensive list of what things do and don't count as "minor" enough, a list which excludes desecrating the name of the Lord -- whether through idolatry, public transgressions of Judaic law meant to desecrate the Torah or otherwise. It also includes certain forms of sexual immorality, and murder.
It's a little more complicated than I fully understand or have the time/space to include, but the Jews were supposed to value life -- even their own life -- above everything but those three commandments. If the Jews were under threat of death, they were supposed to allow themselves to be killed rather than break one of the three above-all rules. Jesus is now telling them that, rather then cause a child to sin, it would be better for them to literally tie a giant rock around your neck and jumping into the sea.
It goes beyond personal responsibility, and has to do with how your actions affect those around you.
Jesus is laying the groundwork for the theatre of the mind in which we battle to manage our thoughts and imaginations. Lust is equated to adultry -- part of the "sexual imorality" section -- and hatred is akin to murder. In a moment, he'll talk about how it is better to cut off your hand than have it cause you to sin -- the same with one of your eyes.
It's a well-known quotation of Jesus that the most important commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. The Jewish leaders took the same commandment to justify giving up your own life -- all your strength -- in order to fulfill the commandment. Loving your neighbor was rule 1A in the mind of Jesus, and with that background in mind, his words would have hit home with those listening.
Your actions, and the way they affect the people around you, matter. Jesus adds essentially adds a fourth exception, saying that causing others to stumble was on a level with murder and should be avoided on pain of death.
Thankfully, God forgives. The penalty for all sins, big and small, is death. We have grace as we stumble and cause others to stumble with us, but Jesus gives a strong warning: in the same way that it's better to cut off a hand than steal or cut out an eye than lust, death is better than being a stumbling block.