Stumbling Blocks and Millstones

Stumbling Blocks and Millstones

Preached FCCW October 14, 2018

Mark 9:38-50



In 2003, Aron Lee Ralston became famous for surviving an ordeal that can best be described as most people’s worst nightmare. While hiking by himself in southeastern Utah, Ralston literally became caught between a rock and a hard place when a dislodged boulder pinned his hand against the wall of a narrow canyon. Isolated and alone for six days, faced with the certainty of his own dying there, he realized that his only hope of freeing himself — and living — was to amputate his own right forearm with the dull pocketknife he carried.

After surviving his ordeal, Ralston landed appearances on Ellen, Leno and Letterman. He was interviewed by a number of network news reporters. And his story became the subject of a Hollywood movie titled “127 Hours.” In other words, Ralston’s claim to fame came by his literally giving his right arm to go on living.

What should definitely NOT be taken literally are Jesus’ references in this passage from Mark’s Gospel about plucking out or cutting off various parts of one’s anatomy. Jesus is using hyperbole to make an unequivocal point. Hyperbole is language that is intentionally and obviously unrealistic and exaggerated and most emphatically not meant to be taken literally. Like saying you’re so hungry you could eat a horse. Or that, nothing short of a nuclear option would be enough to declutter your home. Jesus chooses phrases and images with such powerful shock value that there can be no doubt as to the seriousness of his message.

In the context of our Gospel reading, Jesus has a warning about the seriousness of standing in the way of other people’s attempts to serve God. And to drive home his point, he employs some of the most graphic hyperbole found in the Gospels.

This conversation all started when John, one of Jesus’ disciples, tells him that he and the other disciples had tried to stop someone from casting out demons in Jesus’ name. John addresses Jesus as “Teacher” and it sure sounds as though John expects them all to get a “gold star” of approval from Jesus for doing this. As he typically did in these kinds of situations, Jesus corrects the disciples misguided impulses. Why, he wants to know, would they want to stop someone from doing good for others in his name? “Whoever is not against us”, he points out, “is for us.” Even as simple an act of kindness as offering a drink of water to a stranger makes them an ally, according to Jesus, and not a competitor.

It soon becomes clear to the disciples that he does not share their concern about the man who was healing people in his name; but that he is very troubled by their attitude towards this person. Jesus compares the disciples’ interference with other people’s well-intentioned attempts to follow Jesus’ example, to setting a stumbling block in their way. Anyone who hikes knows that even on a clearly marked trail, exposed tree roots and rocks jutting from the soil can result in serious injury.

He tells them, “If any of you (meaning his disciples) 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.”

I’m not sure that everyone knows a lot about millstones, but they were large stone, wheel-like objects that were rolled around a circular trough to mill grain. There was a hole cut in the center, giving the millstone the appearance of a donut. Or, a life preserver. Unlike a life preserver, however, if you had one of these things tied around your neck and you were thrown into the sea, instead of keeping you afloat, it would guarantee you a swift and irreversible descent to the bottom of the sea.

Yet, Jesus tells the disciples that it would BE BETTER FOR THEM to have that happen to them, than to have them be stumbling blocks in the way of people who are drawn to follow Jesus. I can’t imagine how having a millstone tied around my neck and being dropped overboard in the middle of an ocean could possibly be BETTER THAN anything! Can you?!

But, that’s how hyperbole works. That image makes it impossible to mistake the utmost seriousness with which Jesus views putting stumbling blocks in the way of “little ones who believe in him.”

Who are these “little ones” for whom Jesus expresses such grave concern? He could be speaking literally about children. He had just recently had to rebuke the disciples for their trying to keep children from coming to him.

He could be talking about people who are just beginning to believe in him and trying to figure out what it means to follow him. Those are the “little ones” he was referring to, when he taught the disciples that unless a person receives the kingdom of God like a child (that is, with trust and faith) they cannot enter it.

By little ones, he could have been thinking about people of little or no status in the world’s eyes, whose poverty or ostracism becomes a stumbling block to believing that they have value in God’s eyes.

Most likely, Jesus had all three categories of people in mind.

Before you know it, Jesus shifts the focus from whether the man who was casting out demons was doing something wrong, to questioning the disciples’ judgment in putting a stop to it. Amid all the grotesque hyperbole about lopping off hands and feet and removing eyes there are a very practical lesson for us all about condemning others while not paying attention to our own need to change.

And it involves some interesting word repetition. Immediately after the warning not to place a stumbling block in the path of others Jesus launches into a sequence of statements about being self-aware of our own faults and what to do about them.

Each of the next three statements about stumbling are directed to the disciples.

“If your hand causes you to stumble…”

“If your foot causes you to stumble…”

“if your eye causes you to stumble…”

What Jesus wants us to realize is that putting stumbling blocks in the path of others originates with our own stumbling efforts to follow Jesus. In the disciples’ case, their opposition to this man who was successful at freeing people from the demons that possessed them might have had something to do with the shame they experienced another time when some people came to Jesus with a  complaint regarding the ineffectiveness of his disciples in freeing them from the demons that afflicted them.

Behind all the self-mutilation language, what Jesus is saying is that rather than looking to the faults of others, we must do some serious self-examination. We need to uncover our own stumbling blocks so that we can confess them and surrender them and receive grace to move past them.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to remove hands, feet and eyes. He does call us to let go of attitudes that stand in the way of our loving God fully and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. For all the “Hell language” in this passage, it is not about damnation. It is about an invitation to transformation.

This teaching echoes another time when Jesus used hyperbole to make a very similar point. He said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

The stumbling blocks we cast in the way of those around us are often chips off the old stumbling block we carry in our hearts. Sooner or later, they calcify into millstones that we bear through life. They are not fiery punishments inflicted on us by God, but they do create walls between us and God; and pin us to the canyon of isolation from others, if we don’t free ourselves from them.

In every one of Jesus’ admonitions to remove what causes us to stumble he repeated these same words: “It is better for you…”

If your hand causes you to stumble, it is better for you to remove it.

If you foot causes you to stumble, it is better for you to lose it.

If you eye causes you to stumble, it is better to get rid of it.

Not only is it better for others, that we not become stumbling blocks to them. In the long run it is better for us!

Sometimes, looking at the deficiencies of others is easier than looking at the ways we need to change. It doesn’t feel better to change ourselves instead of focusing on others. But it is always better than the alternative, which is to forfeit the opportunity to be at peace with God, with one another, and ultimately at peace within ourselves.


Copyright 2018    Raymond Medeiros