The Gospel reading is such an important passage because the warnings are so clear. Verses 1 and 2 condemn the person who teaches others to sin. The word translated as ‘stumble’ (skandalon) can actually be more literally translated as scandal and according to Barclay has two meanings: (i) originally it meant to entrap and (ii) it then evolved to mean any stumbling block in a person’s way to trip them up. Barclay writes: ‘Jesus said that it is impossible to construct a world with no temptations; but woe to that person who teaches another to sin or to take away another’s innocence.’ People eventually receive their first nudge along the way to sin and ‘... God will not hold a person guiltless who, along life’s road, causes a weaker one to go the wrong way.’
This is why drug pushers are so dreadful and whenever a stronger character misleads a weaker one it is so inexcusable. This is also why the older person who seduces a younger person is wrong. Our society sends out the message that sexual activity is normal and multiple sexual partners are just part of life. As soon as one allows sexual activity outside of a mature adult, life-long, committed relationship – preferably within a marriage - one opens the door to ‘... leading people to stumble ...’ There is such a fine line between equal, voluntary and informed consent and one feeling pressured to do something they are not really comfortable with. Our young people are confused and I sometimes need to help them pick up the pieces. They are bombarded with sexual license and promiscuity that they feel pressured by the media and the film industry. There is a very real sense that especially movie and TV film makers will be held accountable for ‘... leading little ones astray ...’ but also educational programmes and some in the health service.
Nurturing young ones to maturity is the great honour that I have devoted my life to being part of. But there is a profound difference between this and giving the impression that they can choose for themselves, unless they are properly prepared to make informed choices. Society in its post-modernism states that all opinions are of equal value, that there is little that is definitely wrong, and that everything is okay if the people taking part have agreed; yet when one reads the agony aunt columns of teenage magazines (which I did when I started teaching them), one finds that young girls feel that they have been led astray and this leads me to feel a real sadness for them, who feel robbed of something so precious – their innocence. I know it is an unpopular notion, but I believe we should be making it clear that there is a different way, a better way, the way of cherishing innocence, protecting it and making sure that young people are really properly informed so that they can appropriately make life-changing decisions. I remain committed to marriage as the only appropriate place for sexual activity.
But what other examples are there? We cause others to stumble when we behave in such a way that it makes our faith seem unattractive and bigoted by the things we say or more importantly by the things we do. I was away in Oxford for a few days at a Chaplain’s conference. We were met by a worker Priest from the east end of London, who has colleagues working in Canary Warf, both as Chaplains and as bankers. It has been a powerful Christian witness that the reason why one particular bank has not been part of the crisis is because there are Christians working in it, Christians who take their huge salaries and give 90% of what they earn away. This does the opposite, it attracts people to Christ, it does not send them away.
The eyes of the world will always be upon us. We will be judged more by what people see, even more than what people hear. This is why what people like Mother Teresa believed becomes irrelevant, because of the power of her actions, so Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, atheist and stand in awe when they reflect on how she changed the world for good. J C Ryle writes: ‘Let us endeavour to make our religion beautiful in the eyes of people, and to adorn the doctrine of Christ in all things. Let us strive to lay aside every weight of sin which most easily besets us, and so to live that men can find no fault in us ...’
We are going to cause some offence because the way we live is going to be different to the ways of the world. As I alluded to earlier, our sexual ethic is going to be different, our business ethics are going to be different, our speech and actions are in themselves going to cause offence to some who are going to accuse us of all sorts of things. Christians caused offence to the white majority in South Africa by opposing apartheid; Wilberforce caused great offence to the majority in his call for the abolition of slavery. Jesus caused so much offence that he was crucified on a criminal’s cross. This is not what he is referring to here; here he is referring to those who are caused to stumble off the right path – what their consciences, deep down tell them is right – because we have said or done things which bring discredit to the Gospel of Christ. Ryle concludes this section by writing: ‘The Cross of Christ will always give offence. Let us not increase that offence by carelessness in our daily life.’
But he does not leave it there. We have all got things wrong and will continue to get things wrong. And when this happens we need to forgive others.
Verse 3 and 4 refer to the settling of disputes. The injured person must be on their guard against the dangers of resentment and bearing grudges and must rather go to the person who has caused offence and between them sort things out with repentance and forgiveness being the vital ingredients. No matter how often the offence occurs, the same recipe needs to be followed ‘... with tireless goodwill ...’ and without limit.
Forgiveness needs to be a central feature of Christian living. These verses speak of forgiving seven times. The ancient rabbis spoke of forgiving three times and if one did, one was a perfect man. Christians need to take the rabbinic standard, double it and add one. Barclay writes: ‘... but it is not a matter of mathematical calculation. It simply means that the Christian standard of forgiveness must immeasurably exceed the best the world can achieve.’
To some people today, this forgiving attitude of the dead pilot’s wife is offensive thinking rather than she should have sued both the organisation and the mechanic concerned. But it was an honest mistake and the most costly one anyone could ever make. The man truly repented and was truly forgiven.
This sort of living requires faith; something that we cannot do for ourselves. We know that faith is a gift that God gives us, and all that is left for us to do is to accept it. Confronted with examples of forgiveness like this – which amplify what Jesus was in effect trying to get across to his disciples – I too need to ask Jesus as his disciples did in verse 5 – ‘Increase my faith ...’
Verses 5 and 6 tell of the centrality of faith. Implied in these verses is typical ancient hyperbole suggesting that what might look impossible becomes possible. This is true even in the realm of science and medicine. Today there are many operations that are commonplace which would have been deemed impossible 50 years ago. Barclay adds: ‘If we approach a thing saying “It can’t be done,” it will not; if we approach a thing saying, “It must be done,” the chances are that it will. We must always remember that we approach no task alone, but that with us there is God and all his power.’ Caird adds: ‘... faith in God is a power that takes impossibilities in its stride.’
Verses 7 to 10 tell us that we can never do things that make God indebted to us and we can never have any claim on him. When we have done our best, we have only done our duty, and when we have done our duty we have done no more than we could have been compelled to do. Barclay concludes: ‘It may be possible to satisfy the claims of law; but every lover knows nothing can ever satisfy the claims of love.’
The parable of the slave and the master ‘... is a warning against the bookkeeping mentality, which thinks it can run up a credit balance with God.’ The slave’s labour belongs to the master, and a full day’s work is not more than the slave doing what is expected of him. Nothing the slave can do give him any claim on his master’s gratitude or can put his master in his debt. The same is true of Christians: we cannot earn God’s approval nor can we put God in our debt. Even the best service we can offer ‘... is no more than God is entitled to expect, since it gives him nothing that does not belong to him by right. The whole idea of merit is to be abandoned in our approach to God.’
But this is never something we do because we are afraid of punishment. Our obedience is that which flows from having received loved and so we desire to love in return. We care for others when we teach them the ways of Christ and the Gospel, both my word, but more especially by the example of our lives. Amen.