26th Sunday of ordinary Time
In his letter to the Philippians St. Paul tells his disciples at the very beginning: “My prayer is that your love may more and more abound … so that with a clear conscience and blameless conduct you may learn to value the things that really matter, up to the very day of the Lord.” Thus, what really matters is precisely having a clear conscience and blameless conduct when we come to the “day of the Lord,” which means the day of our judgment by the Lord.
In this light, today’s 2nd reading from James and the Gospel of Mark are not easy reading for us. James warns the rich that if they have grown rich by defrauding their workers and simply used their riches to live “on earth in luxury and pleasure,” they face a terrible judgment on the day of the Lord, punishment which he describes graphically as “impending miseries” and he says, “you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.”
Note that James does not threaten the rich with damnation simply because they are rich, but only if their riches are acquired by dishonest means – in this case by defrauding the workers of their just wages – or if their riches are spent only on themselves for their own luxury and pleasure while their neighbors go without the bare necessities. The first sin is against justice; the second is against charity, that is, the obligation of love to help one’s poor neighbors, as brothers and sisters, who are in desperate need. The rich man who acts like this has killed his conscience and is himself in desperate need since he must face a harsh Final judgment, ‘you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.”
Then in Mark’s Gospel, we hear Jesus warning us about the seriousness of scandalizing little ones, which can mean children or any vulnerable person who puts his or her trust in us. He says, “it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” In other words, that terrible suffering would be far more preferable to the punishment that awaits those who mislead the little ones, which is what we mean by scandalizing them. What punishment? This gospel reading ends with these words, “to be cast into Gehenna [Hell], into the unquenchable fire.
So, among the sins deserving of Hell, Jesus clearly places high on the list the sin of scandalizing the little ones, that is, the simple faithful whom Jesus loves dearly because of their innocence and trust. Scandal is especially serious when it is directed at the innocent who trust the one who scandalizes them. Scandal mean leading someone else into sin by one’s words or deeds, which may lead the innocent to think that something sinful is ok, in other words my actions or words serve to deform the conscience of a little one who has reason to trust me on account of a relationship of authority or friendship.
The horrible scandals in the Church in recent years were especially shocking and repulsive because of the trust children naturally place in religious authorities. Such authority bears a terrible responsibility never to betray that trust, and Jesus certainly is speaking this warning first and foremost to his own apostles. Speaking and acting on behalf of Jesus and His Church carries with it a tremendous responsibility not to mislead the faithful, and especially the little ones, in moral or doctrinal matters. The ordained are charged by their office to help the faithful form correct consciences, and to do anything deliberately that would deform consciences and cause another to sin is the kind of thing Jesus is talking about
The sin of scandal is likewise gravely sinful when adults are mislead by priests in the formation of their consciences. I am not taking about the person who goes shopping to find a priest to tell him this or that act which the church condemns is ok. That’s not scandal; that’s looking for support for an already distorted conscience.
I am speaking here about very simple Catholics, perhaps not well educated, who are told by priests that they can do things that the Church teaches are immoral, because they supposedly have a good reason to ignore the Church’s teaching, or because the Church’s teaching is just one opinion among others, and not binding on their conscience. That is true scandal, leading people to deform their consciences so they can act contrary to the Church’s moral teaching and not consider a sin what the Church teaches is a sin. Whatever the responsibility of the lay person who is so mislead, the priest has no excuse and will suffer the judgment Jesus speaks of unless he repents and tries to correct the damage by denouncing his own bad advice.
But then parents also have to beware of scandalizing their little ones. They too are authorities whom children look to for moral truth and guidance, perhaps the most trusted authorities. So when parents skip Mass, when they could have attended with normal effort, does this not scandalize their own children? Or when parents neglect the religious education of their children by doing nothing to see that they learn their faith as they grow up, in accord with their age and development, is this not scandal? Does this not teach children falsely that religion and God are not very important, not important enough to learn the truths that God has revealed for our salvation, the meaning of the things we believe about God and heaven and hell and the sacraments, and the moral law of God. Is Jesus not talking about that kind of scandal also in today’s Gospel?
And then we have the scandal given by politicians who vote for immoral laws or to allow gravely immoral actions, like abortion or same sex marriages. Do they not mislead the public who trust them and who often tend to form their consciences, misguidedly, by what the politician allows or promotes? How scandalous it is when Catholic politicians vote to allow abortion, a crime against God and man! How scandalous when religious leaders fail to condemn these politicians for abusing their office by voting for the right of people to kill their unborn. Was it not scandalous when Christians voted to allow slavery?
And then there is the scandal given to children when their parents vote for such politicians who are responsible by their votes for the suffering and death of millions – over 40 million children killed to date in this country alone since 1973. When German Catholics and Protestants voted for Hitler in 1932 – he won 37% of the vote – when he was spouting hatred for Jews and was already suggesting the final solution to the Jewish problem and showing his contempt for the Churches, were they justified because Hitler was also rebuilding the country’s economy and placing himself on the side of the worker and the poor? Were they not scandalizing their own children who would begin joining Hitler Youth groups en masse to prepare for the 1000 year Reich and all its horrors? Does building better highways and having the state intervene to financially to fight unemployment – Germany did both – ever possibly balance out a gravely immoral policy that predictably led to the death of millions of human beings? How did German parents explain to their surviving children after the war why they voted for a man who publicly spewed hatred for a whole race and other groups, and whose hateful policies toward the Churches was already apparent to anyone who was looking beyond their own material wellbeing?
We all have to avoid such scandal. Jesus with the harshness of his language in that Gospel warns us of the consequences of misleading others into sin, feeding them misinformation in order to distort their consciences, or acting in such a way that we appear to justify terrible evils or in ways that bring contempt on Jesus and our Catholic faith.
No sin is unforgiveable, of course, but scandal ranks up there among the sins that Jesus strongly condemns. And scandal demands that we repair the damage done to others’ consciences by our words or actions, in private life or public life. Jesus doesn’t say those harsh things very often, a millstone around his neck, drowning in the sea; better for you to enter into life maimed than … to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. That’s strong medicine and shows how much Jesus hates scandal, especially the scandal of the little ones, of the innocent. He is so strong to makes us want to avoid that sin with all our hearts. With his Grace we can do anything, and that includes never doing anything to cause someone else to sin, or repenting if we do and trying to correct the damage done to souls who trusted us.