Have you ever received one of those offers in the mail that tells you that you can get a wonderful, one-of-a-kind product absolutely for free . . . a product that you have been drooling for, but just couldn’t allow yourself to spend that much money? You know what I am talking about. The letter tells you that the stupendous and marvelous product is all yours . . . for free . . . all you have to do is to jump through a few hoops. Jump through the hoops and its yours . . . all yours. Of course those hoops are pretty big hoops to jump through . . . some are even flaming hoops. The product is free if you do everything that it says in the fine print.
Unfortunately, few of us ever read the fine print before we jump in with both feet. The result? Well, we get tired . . . we get frustrated . . . we get angry . . . and, then we finally throw up our hands in disgust and call it quits. Why? Because that free product is not “free” . . . there are a ton of barriers blocking the way for us to get it. A whole lot of stipulations. Lots of hoops. The company offering the product hopes that we get frustrated and quit . . . usually long after they have gathered all the information they want for us. They keep their product, we get nothing.
This week we continue the conversation that Jesus is having with his disciples. Remember last week’s conversation . . . well, the pattern continues. The disciples have been informed about Jesus’ passion and resurrection . . . which they poo pooed. Then there is the conversation about who would be the greatest . . . which Jesus corrects them and demonstrates with a small child the correct way. But, the disciples don’t get it . . . they don’t understand what it is that Jesus is attempting to teach them . . . what it means to be a disciple. They appear, at least in the Gospel of Mark, to be clueless, confused or even resistant to what Jesus is trying to teach.
For example, the disciples go into major finger pointing when they complain to Jesus that there is a person out there who is going around exorcising demons in Jesus’ name . . . but, they cry out, he is not one of us. So the disciples told him to knock it off. Jesus tells them to knock it off. He tells them: “Do not stop him. No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus does not care for this behavior . . . this finger pointing and power playing . . . especially from his disciples. Instead Jesus wants them to pay attention to their own behavior.
Basically the disciples are telling this individual that if he is not one of “them” then he cannot play the game . . . he has to be on their “team”. To be on their “team” he has to go through the same training that they have gone through . . . pay the same prices . . . jump through the same hoops. If he is not willing to do all this, then he cannot be on the “team”. If he is not on the “team”, then he needs to stop performing the miracles that he is performing. As far as the disciples are concerned it is a cut and dry issue.
Now, if I was that guy—who already has the power to do what the disciples are doing—I probably will not jump up and down to join their “team”. He already has the prize . . . he is already doing good works . . . already performing miracles . . . and, though he is not one of the disciples, he gives the credit to Jesus. But, the disciples insist that he jump through the hoops. They place stumbling blocks across the path . . . the path of faith.
The problem is not the guy doing the miracles, the problem is the disciples. Jesus recognizes this and he turns the table on the He warns them that they are the ones in danger of doing harm. Jesus points out that it is not those on the outside who are greatest threat, but those who are on the inside. Remember how it is when a person points a finger at another . . . there are always fingers pointing back at the pointer. Jesus proposes to the disciples that maybe . . . when they consider the situation . . . they are the stumbling blocks that are getting in the way of the gospel . . . getting in the way of the “good news”.
Do you remember all the issues that the Apostle Paul dealt with in the early church? Remember all the arguments, fights, and schisms . . . the sense of competition . . . that were going on as the faithful debated over who could use Jesus’ name, who is right, who has authority? The early church had plenty of problems and growing pains as they struggled with persecution, dealt with conflicts over Jewish-Gentile relations, and all of the growing pains of being an infant body of faith seeking an identity and faithful witness. The bottom line was that Christian groups disagreed with one another, contested each other’s claims, and even sought to quiet one another through censure or just plain kicking the offending parties out.
Finger pointing and power plays have no business or place in the message of faith that Jesus offers to all. In fact, Jesus warns that this behavior—these stumbling blocks—can do more harm than good, especially upon those who are on the outside looking in. There is no good that comes from infighting and self-righteous proclamations about others. Thus it is that Jesus turns the focus not on others, but ourselves . . . to our own behaviors, the ways that we speak and live the “good news”, and the ways that we place stumbling blocks in the way of that “good news”.
Jesus is talking about the danger that his own followers can do. In verses 42 through 47 the Greek word—shandalon, which is an obstacle that people trip over and is usually translated “stumbling block”—is used in each verse. Here Jesus is being clear . . . and blunt . . . that it is his own followers that can do more harm and that it would be better for them to drown than to cause that harm to the “little ones”.
The role of those who follow Jesus, especially those who were the closest—the disciples, is a huge responsibility thanks to their intimacy with Jesus. They are looked upon as role models . . . people look to them to show them the way, they follow their examples, and are susceptible to their words and practices, and are probably quite vulnerable to their critiques and conflicts. In other words, they are quite impressionable. Thus it is that the disciples—and any follower of Jesus—needs to not be careless in their faith. They need congruency between the words that they say and the actions that they take.
Jesus graphically describes these stumbling blocks by using parts of the body—precious parts of the body . . . hands, feet, and eyes. These are parts of the body that we hold dear . . . parts that we think we need. With these images Jesus makes it clear that stumbling blocks are not other people or things outside of us—they are a part of us. These “stumbling blocks” might be events, practices, rituals, “the way that we have always done things”, or our own pet causes. When the things that we hold dear and believe lead to abundant life instead become obstacles to others seeking the faith, it leads to a fate worse than severing or maiming those body parts—a death of unquenchable fire. Jesus suggests that it is better to lose those body parts than to burn in hell.
Once again, Jesus turns the tables . . . and, considering the state of today’s “church”—that “church” being the “church universal”—in our nation and society; one has to consider if we—the “insiders”, have done more harm than good. Remember the Apostle Paul and all the headaches he was dealing with concerning all of those new church starts . . . remember all those issues he was having to straighten out . . . all that finger pointing, posturing, and power plays? The “church” hasn’t changed a whole bunch since then when it comes to those issues . . . we are still doing it.
I think that the number one reason that people are not flocking to churches hinges on those people telling the “church” that those who fill the pews are hypocrites. That they encounter more stumbling blocks that keep them from being fully embraced into the faith than they fell welcomed. That they see it as being “our way or no way” when it comes to being a part of the “church”.
So, what are the stumbling blocks we place in the way of those we encounter on our journey of faith? What parts of ourselves are we using that creates an obstacle to keep others out? What are we hanging onto that is more of a hindrance than a help to others seeking a relationship with God? It is easy to point fingers at others and blame them, it is more difficult to look inward and recognize our own obstacles.
Jesus calls upon everyone to come into an intimate relationship with God . . . to come as they have been created. In his words there are no hoops to jump through, no obstacles to get around, and nothing to make one stumble. There is no fine print . . . no hidden costs. It is pure grace, plain and simple. The question becomes, why aren’t more people stepping into this intimate relationship with God? Could it be . . . stumbling blocks of our own design? We will never know until we truly pray and discern our own lives of faith. Amen.