On St Mark 9, 38-43; 45; 47-48
Right in the middle of the drama of a demon keeping a young boy under his evil influence, the teaching of Christ in this gospel also raises the question about sin, that is, what could be regarded as sin even in an indirect way. No one would deny the evil of sin when acts forbidden by divine law are carried out consciously or even intentionally. It is for example obviously and clearly sinful to lie in order to profit selfishly from what one lies about, but less obvious if one lies to protect somebody’s good reputation or perhaps arrange for someone to be helped in difficult situations on false grounds. We can agree that there are different levels of sinning, the serious ones and the more forgivable ones.
The gospel takes up the case, not of committing sin oneself directly, but leading someone else to do evil. The key passage in Our Lord’s conversation with his followers concerns the immorality of misleading persons who believe in Christ, and in its extension, any person of sound thinking and information. Here it would seem that the judgment of the Lord is, if possible, more definite than in the cases of one’s own sins. Even if one must seek forgiveness for one’s own sins, the love of one’s brothers and sisters, that is one’s neighbour, demands of us as Christians to realize the responsibility we have for one another, spiritually and socially, particularly when it comes to decisions or acts that are evil and sinful. We always have a double moral priority.
What the Lord says is “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea”. In the Ronald Knox translation of the Bible the meaning comes out even more clearly, saying “And if anyone hurts the conscience of one of these little ones, he had better have been cast into the sea”, underlining the role of human conscience.
What was said by the Lord here should be compared with, for example, the scene in Jerusalem with the woman accused of adultery, or fornication, by the learned and righteous Pharisees, who wanted Jesus to entitle them to stone the woman to death as the Law of Moses indicated. In this case Jesus did not pronounce the judgement they expected, but turned the question of sin back to themselves asking which of them were free from sin.
The only thing Our Lord said to the woman was that he did not judge her for her act but told her to go in peace, adding, go and do not sin henceforward (John 8:11). What we learn from the two examples is that judgment belongs to God but that saving a person from sinning, through loving care and true empathy, saves the very person who might neglect his or her duty to interfere when evil is at stake. It means that we, as followers of Christ, may not remain passive before the possibility of a person’s evil or sinful act. In the gospel Jesus shows this very clearly, acting out of love and freeing a boy from an evil spirit, a demon.
This situation is extremely frequent in modern life and in all the ethical problems that face us today. We may not, out of human respect, appear to be understanding and supportive when another person asks for advice as to euthanasia, abortion, same sex marriages or artificial insemination situations, for example. As soon as we realize that true values are at stake we must be clear, but in a respectful way, and point to the unacceptable consequences of an immoral decision or act.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin”, the Lord warns, “should be better off if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea”, he continues. His words are not a masked threat or a condemnation; they are given to prevent evil from happening.
Many times we may have a good notion of certain acts as sinful but find it hard to explain why, because we do not have the relevant knowledge. We need to be sufficiently informed about Church teaching in many ethical questions. When we are not, we need to be particularly careful with our words so as not to do more harm than good. We have the example of St. John the Baptist who spoke out against King Herod on his having taken his brother’s wife as his own and living with her. St. John defended the sanctity of marriage but had to die for spelling out the truth in clear and simple words. Now that we are not St John the Baptists we need to find other ways, but, and that is the conclusion, we must never neglect our love and responsibility for others, even if it would cost us a loss of friendship, at least temporally, or be rewarded by hatred because of our telling the truth.
The holy Apostle speaks of our right attitude in sensible situations when he says, “We are to follow the truth, in a spirit of charity, and so grow up, in everything, into a due proportion with Christ, who is our head” (Eph 4:15). No demon has the power to overthrow the truth in which Christ speaks and acts. Good will prevail. As in the Gospel today when Jesus frees a man from an unclean spirit. Love and Truth go hand in hand. Amen.
Diakon Göran Fäldt