“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” – Mark 9:42-50
I recall a Cub Scout outing to the local water purification plant when I was a young boy. It was a very interesting experience for more than one reason. The pumps, pipes, pools, and other equipment of the plant were fascinating to many of us young boys. Some were painted bright red. Others were interesting shapes, with bends and valves. But the most striking memory I have of that outing was when one of the leaders pushed me unexpectedly out over a steel grate in the floor which overlooked a part of the plant 20 feet below! All I saw in the moment was that I was 20 feet above a hard concrete floor with more equipment, pipes and valves. I didn’t see that the grate was built to hold the weight of several men – and maybe even a forklift or other piece of heavy equipment. It frightened me greatly – albeit for only a few seconds. He somehow got a kick out of doing that. I did not.
The image that Jesus uses here of causing someone to sin, is that of causing someone to stumble. This is far worse, however, than causing someone to be momentarily frightened, or even tripping someone on the sidewalk. This has to do with leading someone to fall off the path of faith, to be harmed spiritually, in his or her very being. It has to do with violating someone’s conscience, or turning someone’s attention away from the goodness, faithfulness, and love of God, causing faith to be replaced by distrust, skepticism, and bitterness toward God.
When you think of it, that’s what sin is: an abandonment of faith in God, a dismissal of hope in God’s goodness, a rejection of God’s love. All that is replaced by love for self, self-serving fear, and self-righteous judgmentalism – even of God. If we think of sin as only doing bad things, we sorely underestimate its power and devastating impact. Sin is the disease of unfaith, self-centered living, and prideful arrogance. It has to do with the condition of the heart that is unable to receive love or believe in God. Whatever causes us to stumble away from God, from faith, from love is not just a bad action. It is the stuff of eternal death and despair.
Jesus’ call is to protect those who believe in him. His gift is life. He grants that by means of his forgiveness – won at the terrible cost of his sacrificial death, and ratified by his triumphant resurrection from the grave. We who have received this gift must certainly seek to help others along the path onto which God has placed us by his grace.