Jesus has some harsh words for that which would cause another to sin. These words are so difficult, I’ve heard of preachers who are tempted to say, “Well, Jesus never would have said something like this.” To those who choose that preaching angle, Jesus has the harshest words, “If any of you 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 don’t know about you, but I’m not too enthusiastic about getting the mafia treatment just because my own discomfort with a Biblical text caused me to cause another to stumble in their life of faith.
There is an equally powerful temptation for those who will hear these words of Jesus. Rather than blame another human being, or God forbid, blame ourselves and risk cutting off a hand or a foot or gouging out an eye, we’re quite content to simply say:
Jesus won’t let us get away with that either. No, the things which cause us to sin lay squarely within ourselves and in the choices we make. For those who pull us into sin, the penalties are severe, but even then, we made the choice to follow their lead. Even those sins we call systemic: sins like racism, classism, and oppression; come down to the choices we make. The hard truth of Jesus’ teaching on sin is that we are responsible for our own actions – things done and left undone – and are therefore responsible for the consequences of our own sinful behavior.
Jesus uses hyperbole to teach this lesson, but that isn’t to say he doesn’t mean what he says. The consequences of our sin are severe, both for we who do the sinning and for those we sin against. It would be better, that is to say, less traumatic overall to remove the offending body part before the sin occurs than to endure the suffering the follows our sinful deeds. Unfortunately, we all know what Jesus means. We’ve all picked up the pieces after a harsh word, a youthful indiscretion, or the wanton disregard for another human being. If, by the grace of God, we’ve found ourselves to be remorseful when it was all over (for the sin rather than its consequences), then perhaps you’ve said to yourself, “It would have been better to have ripped out my tongue than to have ever said those words.” Jesus’ words may be harsh and they may be exaggerated, but they are true and worthy of our attention.