We’ve all been there, from the clumsiest of us (like me!) to professional athletes: Just walking or running along minding our own business, when suddenly something trips us up and we stumble. It’s an apt metaphor for life itself, and specifically the life of faith. Months and years can pass by without incident — we do the basics of work, home, friends and family, say our prayers, and go to church — before something, big or small, comes along that knocks us off our course. These incidents, which I’ll call ‘tripping points’ (to shamelessly riff on the term ‘tipping point’), are the theme of today’s Gospel reading, from the book of Mark, in which Jesus also reminds us that we can trip up others too if we aren’t careful.
The reading begins with Jesus’ disciples coming to him completely out of sorts. Why? Because someone outside their group is doing good — casting out demons — in Jesus’ name. On the surface, they are upset that someone might be using Jesus’ authority without his permission. But it’s pretty clear that on a deeper level, they are jealously guarding their special relationship with Jesus, not wanting anyone else to have an ‘in’ with him. On a still deeper level, they are probably embarrassed, since just a few verses before, they had been unable to do what this stranger has done: exorcise a demon in Jesus’ name. In that earlier scene, Jesus had called them a “faithless generation” and told them they needed faith and prayer. And now someone else, who as far as they know is a complete stranger to Jesus, seems to be demonstrating greater trust and more powerful prayer than them. This trips them up. Suddenly they are angry and unsure of themselves, they lash out at the ‘offender’ and expect Jesus to pat them on the back for it.
Jesus uses this as a jumping off point to talk about tripping points (skandalia in the Greek, which is appropriately enough the origin of our word ‘scandal’), and warns them — and us by extension — not to trip others up.
First, he puts the disciples in their place: being upset at someone performing healings is no different than being upset at someone offering a stranger a cup of water. Showing mercy and compassion for another is never the wrong course of action. Basic kindness and human decency is Religion 101 (a fact that it would seem many Christians are prone to forget!). By being scandalized by this stranger doing good, the disciples are making something that has nothing to do with them all about them; they are centering themselves in someone else’s story, and to make matters worse, it’s a good story that they are trying to ruin. By making a scene, they have in turn themselves become scandalous, a potential cause of someone tripping up: the stranger doing the healing, perhaps, or the person being healed, or even bystanders made curious about this Jesus’ power. And woe to them for causing anyone to stumble.
As I mentioned, the ideas of scandal and tripping points here are closely connected; in the discourse that follows, Jesus uses the verb related to skandalion, literally a snare, multiple times. And so, this root is actually the unifying theme of this passage — a fact that’s lost in translation. He says:
If any of you put a stumbling block before [trips up, ensnares, scandalizes] 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 [trips up, ensnares, scandalizes], 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 [trips up, ensnares, scandalizes], 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 [trips up, ensnares, scandalizes], 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.
Notice the shift in this text. Jesus is making two related points. First is his warning against causing others to trip up. It’s easy for us to get in God’s way and become part of the problem instead of part of the solution, pushing people away from God instead of drawing them to God. (As it is written: “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”). This can be through our legalism, our sense of ownership over the faith or God, our mistaken priorities, or through our own petty insecurities. But we had better take Jesus’ warning to heart and nip this in the bud. It isn’t our job to be gatekeepers of the faith or to show off our faithfulness or imagined ‘purity’; it is our job to love others, to extend grace and compassion, and to show up for those who need it.
Jesus’ second point is about how to react when we are tripped up or scandalized. Using rhetorical devices like repetition and hyperbole, he tells the disciples that the problem when they get tripped up is not the ‘offending’ person or object, but is within them. He doesn’t say, ‘If your ear hears salacious gossip that is too juicy to resist, get rid of the gossiper,’ but ‘If you can’t resist the juicy gossip, chop off your ear.’ It’s not the stimulus that is the problem, but how we react to it. There is no room for blaming others for our temptation or for our sin; we have to take responsibility for ourselves. No short skirt ‘justifies’ harassment; no provocation ‘justifies’ murder. We are responsible for our reactions to other people.
One might think this isn’t fair: Why are we responsible for tripping up others but others aren’t responsible for tripping us up? But, of course, they are responsible in the same way we are — but before God, not us. There is no blaming others for our feelings, no scapegoating for our reactions. The days of sacrificing others to sustain our sense of personal innocence are over. The buck stops here, with us.
Before I wrap this up, it’s impossible to comment on this passage without addressing the language of ‘hell.’ The idea of hell that comes to mind for us is one that evolved over time, bringing together images from Persian, Jewish, Christian, and Greco-Roman cultures. It has more to do with the imaginings of Renaissance and Early Modern poets than it does with the Bible. The Bible itself has many different words for ‘the place of the dead’, each with very different sensibilities. In this passage, the word our Bibles tend to translate as ‘hell’ is the most difficult to interpret of the bunch: Gehenna. Gehenna was not a mythological or metaphysical word, but was a literal valley around Jerusalem. During the days of the Judahite monarchy, it had been the site of child sacrifices and so was considered to be a cursed place (see, for example, Jeremiah 7:31, 19:2–6). In the centuries in and around the time of Jesus, it had taken on connotations of a place of judgment for the dead. In early rabbinic Judaism, it referred to something akin to the modern Roman Catholic idea of purgatory — a place where the sins of the dead are punished — but it’s unclear how early those connotations were given to the place. All this is to say that I think our Bibles mislead us when they translate Gehenna here as ‘hell’. While it’s hard to know what exactly Jesus had in mind, it was most likely something in between the physical place with a bad history and a place of punishment after death. In the context of the passage, it stands parallel to the reference to suicide by drowning, so it’s probably safest to interpret it simply as referring to a dishonorable and cursed death. Needless to say, it’s not a fate we would want for ourselves.
At any rate, Jesus’ overall point is clear: There are many ways we can get tripped up in this world; and there are many ways we can trip up others. The responsibility is ours to avoid them and avoid setting them.