Growing up on what is essentially a sandbar, I learned to swim at an early age. The local kids who always seemed to be in the ocean or the pool were referred to as ‘water rats’ (which are a specific thing, rats that live around the water, in our case, in the cracks in the seawall, and they grew to be enormous. If you’ve ever seen The Princess Bride, these rats were like the R.O.U.S.’s, the Rodents of Unusual Size). Anyway, growing up basically amphibious, I was pretty confident in the water. There were scary times, though. More than once I found myself in trouble while surfing, which is not unusual, and I had my life legitimately saved in hurricane surf by my friend Joe, who paddled into the same rocky maelstrom I was drowning in to drag my up by my leash.
Drowning might be the scariest thing I can think of, and so I think it’s possible that the scariest thing Jesus ever said was “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”
A millstone, by the way, was of course a stone used at a mill. “A mill [back then, and sometimes now] consisted of two heavy flat circular stones, one resting on the other. The lower remained fixed. The upper one was rotated, by means of a handle, around a peg fastened into the lower stone, and passed through a funnel-shaped hole in the upper one. Grain was poured into this funnel and ground between the two stones, and flour came out at the circumference. Small mills were worked by hand; larger ones were turned by”1 some manner of work animal, an ox or a mule. Interestingly, it was one of these huge mills that Samson was forced to turn after his hair began to grow back after it was cut and he was finally captured and blinded. And millstones like this one were associated with curses, or with being cursed, like when the prophet Jeremiah used a millstone-thrown-in-the-water reference as a metaphor for Babylon “sinking, to rise no more” against Israel. It was this size of millstone, and this kind of millstone context, that Jesus was talking about.
So what does one have to do to get himself into this frightening millstone-hanging situation to begin with? Well, something really bad, but it’s important to know who it is, or what kind of person it is, that is implicated here. Jesus said ““Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,” so it’s important to know who the ‘whoever’ is and who the ‘little ones’ are.
Now, ‘whoever’ sounds rather broad, but in this context, Jesus is talking about people who should know better, Christians who are mature enough to know when they are doing something wrong. It’s these people – the leaders in the Church, the Church School graduates, the long-time pew sitters – that Jesus is talking about here. When Jesus talks about the ‘little ones’, lots of Biblical translations like to translate that as ‘children’, the toddler through middle school set. But that is not what the word that Jesus used means; what it does mean is broader, and encompasses everyone from the chronologically young to new Christians to Christians who haven’t had the opportunity to grow in faith. So in this case, it comes down to knowing better; if you know better, but still manage to be a bad influence on someone, if you’re supposed to be the role model, but instead lead others into sin, well, we talked about millstones a few minutes ago.
This is scary stuff, and Jesus doesn’t sugar-coat it for us; I guess He figured we’re better off knowing the whole truth. But while Jesus doesn’t sugar-coat the bad stuff, He doesn’t mitigate the good stuff either. “For truly, I say to you,” Jesus says to us, “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward .” Jesus didn’t hide that bright little rule under a bushel. If anyone at all, Christian or not, does anything at all to help someone who is associated in any way with Jesus, they will not lose their reward. How heroic do you need to be to receive heavenly rewards? About as heroic as giving a thirsty Christian a cup of water if he or she needs it.
In short, God knows our coming in and going out, He watches over those He loves, and that, believe me, is better than the alternative. Like any father, and in this case, the best father ever, the Lord cares for His children, He rewards those who treat His children well and punishes those who would see His children suffer. God cares enough for us to send Jesus to tell us personally, to let us know that there is nothing that escapes the eyes of the Lord, and that there are no lengths He wouldn’t go to show us how much He loves us.
1Millstone, Bible Dictionary, http://classic.scriptures.lds.org/en/bd/m/53