Stumbling Blocks

38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:38-50).

Recently I was involved in a discussion with a group of priests about the boundaries of the church – what are the boundaries and do grace and salvation exist beyond the canonical limits of the church. It is a question with which the church has struggled from its beginning. Some in our group took the position that there is no grace or salvation outside the boundaries of the church. One priest who is from Lebanon, without debate or argument, offered a simple observation. He said that in his country the majority of people are Muslim and he knows many Muslims who are more holy and live better lives than some Christians. His response raises some challenging questions.

  • What do we do when we encounter difference?
  • Where do we stand with regard to those who do not follow us?
  • How do we see, perceive, or judge the other?

The disciples in today’s gospel are facing these very same questions. They encounter someone who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The irony is that just a few verses earlier Mark describes how the disciples failed at casting out a demon (Mk. 9:17-18, 28) and then they argued with each other about who was the greatest (Mk. 9:33-34). To make matters worse this guy – who is not one of them – comes along and is doing what they could not do. So they try to stop him “because he was not following us.” Maybe he does not speak, think, act, or look like them – we do not know. But we do know this. He is not part of their group and they see him as getting in the way. They judge him to be a stumbling block to their faith and ministry. And when they cannot stop him they tell on him. They report him to Jesus.

I cannot help but believe they were disappointed with Jesus’ response. Jesus does not support them in their action. He does not criticize or condemn the man. He does not accept their judgment of the man as a stumbling block.  It seems the disciples have crossed a line – the line between protecting the faith and claiming ownership of the faith. It is a line each of us has to negotiate as we encounter the other, encounter differences of opinion, encounter different practices and understanding.

Jesus is less focused on the man casting out demons and more focused on his disciples. In fact, Jesus takes the disciples’ judgment and turns it back on them.

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. (Mk. 9:42-48).

The encounter with the other, with difference, should cause us to first examine our own life. Jesus is asking us to consider what causes us to stumble or become a stumbling block for another.

In the physical world stumbling blocks are external – the shoe in the middle of the floor, the curb or bedpost that catches our toe, water that causes us to slip, uneven ground that causes us to lose our balance. But in the spiritual world stumbling blocks are a part of us. They are as much a part of us as are our hands, feet, and eyes.

Stumbling blocks are the patterns of life we have created for ourselves or to which we have been subjected by others but which we perpetuate. They are the habits of seeing, thinking, and acting that blind us to who we, our neighbors, and God really are. They distort reality so that we cannot respond appropriately. We trip and fall. Sometimes we trip another.

These stumbling blocks are not so much specific behaviors but rather, ways of relating to God, the world, our neighbor, and ourselves. They are things like fear, anger, resentment, gossip, envy. Perfectionism, our need for approval and to be liked, or to be in control often cause us to stumble. Sometimes it is our prejudice, indifference, or apathy. Other times our attachments and addictions trip us up.

Every time we stumble or cause another to stumble we have denied life – our own or another’s. We have diminished the kingdom of God and ultimately destroyed love. Jesus’ concern and desire is that we would, as the collect for today says, “become partakers of the heavenly treasure.” And so his remedy is drastic – amputation. Cut it off. Tear it out. This is not about punishment. It is about healing and it is a matter of life and death. The spiritual gangrene must be removed in order that we might be whole. Authentic spirituality always involves letting go. As stumbling blocks are removed the boundaries of life, love, the church, and God’s presence are expanded.

So I wonder…. What causes you to stumble? How have you tripped another?

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