Jesus’ horror at the Sin of Scandal

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 for Christians 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 or lay teachers that they can do things that the Church, with the authority of Christ, teaches are immoral. They are advised to follow their own consciences if they think that they have some good reason to ignore the Church’s teaching. Thus, such priests or laity are really asserting that the Church’s official teaching is just one opinion among others and is not binding on anyone in the formation of his or her conscience. They insist that each person has to judge whether the Church’s teaching is true or false as it applies to his or her individual circumstances. In other words there are no universally valid norms of morality that bind everyone in their formation of conscience.

It is simply impossible to square such a position regarding conscience formation with the words of Jesus to his Apostles when he says,  “He who hears you hears me; and he who rejects you rejects me; and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me. (Lk. 10:16) In Lumen Gentium 20, Vatican II uses this exact verse from Luke to affirm that the Church’s magisterium, composed of the Pope and Bishops, constitutes the  true successors of the Apostles. They speak with the authority of Christ, and thus to reject their teaching as false in moral or doctrinal matters is to reject Christ and to reject the Father.

That is true scandal here, not only that of leading people to deform their consciences so they can act contrary to the Church’s moral teaching, but ultimately to reject their faith in Christ as our Teacher. Whatever be the responsibility of the laity who are misled in this way, the priest or fellow Christian who misleads them 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.

So too, then, parents also have to beware of scandalizing their little ones. They too are authorities, perhaps the most trusted authorities, whom their children look to for moral truth and guidance. So when parents skip Mass, when they could have attended with normal effort, and downplay its moral obligation, 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 also not a scandal?  Does this neglect not teach children that religion and God are not very important, not important enough to learn the truths that God has revealed for our salvation, learn what we believe about God and heaven and hell, what the sacraments are, and what the moral law of God is.  Is Jesus not talking about that kind of scandal also in today’s Gospel?

And what will God judge about the scandal given by politicians who vote for immoral laws, to allow gravely immoral actions, such as abortion or same sex marriages. Do they not gravely mislead the public who trust them and who often tend to form their consciences by what the laws allow or promote? Is it not even more scandalous when Catholic politicians mislead fellow Catholics by their voting to allow crimes like abortion, a crime against God and man! And is there not scandal involved when religious leaders fail to discipline these politicians for abusing their office by voting for the right of people to kill their unborn, just as it was scandalous when Christians voted to allow slavery.

And then there is the scandal given to children when their parents vote for such politicians who by their votes are themselves responsible for the suffering and death of millions of unborn children. When some German Catholics and Protestants voted for Hitler in 1932 knowing he was promoting hatred for Jews and for the Church, was this not a scandal for their children?  Perhaps they justified their vote because Hitler was also rebuilding the country’s economy and placing himself on the side of the worker and the poor. But could his building better highways and having the state intervene financially to fight unemployment possibly balance his 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 such a man?

We all have to avoid the sin of scandal. And Jesus, using unusually   harsh language about a millstone and drowning, severely warns us of the consequences of misleading others into sin, feeding the little ones misinformation which distorts 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.

Of course, no sin is unforgiveable, but scandal ranks right up there among the sins that Jesus most strongly condemns.  Moreover, to be forgiven, scandal demands that we try to 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 hung around one’s neck and drowning in the sea; or better for us to enter into life maimed than … to be thrown into Gehenna, into its unquenchable fire. That’s strong medicine indeed, and it shows just how much Jesus hates scandal, and especially the scandal of the little ones, of the innocent. He is so strong in his language precisely because He wants to make sure we will want to avoid that sin with all our hearts. And we know that with his Grace we can do anything, and that includes avoiding doing anything to cause someone else to sin;  or at least repenting if we do fail and trying to correct the damage done to souls who trusted us. May Jesus Christ be praised, now and forever, Amen.

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