It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Jesus in the Gospel lessons we have heard. Jesus had managed to pick twelve disciples who couldn’t manage to grasp what it was that was happening to them, Who it was that they were following. Two weeks ago the disciples couldn’t manage to cast out a demon who was torturing a young boy, so just moments after being transfigured on a mountaintop, Jesus had to take care of that one. Last week the disciples couldn’t manage to drum up enough empathy for their Master to listen to Him saying that He was going to be arrested and killed, so Jesus had to go as far as using a child as a prop in teaching them about servanthood. This week, the disciples stopped a man from casting out demons using the Name of Jesus, and they did so in a manner that made Jesus even more frustrated than He already was.
And frustration is the key to this Gospel lesson. I have heard many sermons on the things that Jesus said in this Gospel, about how Jesus didn’t really mean it when He said that if your foot or your hand or your eye causes you to stumble, to cut them off, gouge them out, get rid of them if it means getting rid of a roadblock on the path to Heaven. I’ve heard preachers tell their congregations not to worry so much about the extremes of this teaching, that Jesus was using hyperbole, that He intended to shock the disciples back onto the right path. I’m not so sure.
“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.” Jesus was frustrated, and He was done fooling around. It might be helpful at this point to define some terms. Stumbling blocks sound rather innocuous, like little rocks on a path or a toy left on the floor by a child for a parent to stub her toe on, but that’s not what a stumbling block is. The Greek word translated here as stumbling block is skandalon, from which we get, obviously, the word scandal. So think of what Jesus said like this: If any of you, by way of causing scandal, by way of making a scandalous mockery of my Name, if any of you by causing a scandal contributes to the downfall of 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. Doesn’t sound much like hyperbole anymore, does it? What father wouldn’t seek to punish the man who kept his child from heaven? Could anyone go too far, say anything too extreme, in warning us about how our actions, about how our actions as Christians, can effect the salvation of others?
And so for the flip side: “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” So anyone who ministers, who takes care of another person because that person is a Christian, because that person is valued as Christ is valued, will receive a reward that cannot be taken away. We are gathered here right now to honor, bless, and pray for the ministry of our firefighters and emergency personnel. Theirs is a ministry that is close to my heart: I have been a volunteer fireman my entire adult life; I know it can be a rewarding, frustrating, and dangerous ministry. Theirs is a ministry in which giving that cup of water to those bearing the Name of Christ involves putting their lives on the line, for us and for each other, a ministry that graphically demonstrates that greater love hath no man than to give up his life for his friends. Theirs is a ministry that can be forgotten right up until the time we need them, right up until the time our lives and property are threatened, right up until the time their lives are put on hold so that our lives can go on. But we also know that their sacrifice will not forgotten by God, we know that they will by no means lose their reward.
I am sure that just like the disciples, we all have days that we don’t get it, days that we frustrate the purposes of God, days that we would all be better off cutting off limbs and gouging out eyes if that’s what it took to keep us on the right track. And just like the disciples we have days that we find our way to caring for the sick, the stranger, the young and the old, caring for those who bear the Name of Christ. So it is my prayer that all of us come to the Lord without scandal and with cup in hand, and that none of us lose our reward.