70. Spiritual “Stumbling”

In Matthew’s Gospel the lexical group skandalizein/skandalon defines various negative spiritual responses to Jesus and his teaching, as well as moral failure. Matthew, Mark and Paul use this vocabulary most frequently within the New Testament canon. Mark only used the verb form. Luke (7:23; 17:1-2) and John (6:61; 16:1) employ it very sparingly and we have occasional use in 1 Peter (2:8), 1 John (2:10) and Revelation (2:14). The noun skandalon describes a trap or snare set to catch animals. Metaphorically it defines something a person does to cause the destruction of an enemy. For example, Saul uses his daughter, Michal, as a snare (skandalon 1 Samuel 18:21ff) to secure the death of David. By establishing the bride price as the death of a hundred Philistines, Saul expects that David will be killed in the process of securing the bride price. The earliest usage of this noun in the Greek Old Testament occurs in Leviticus 19:14 where Moses tells Israelites not to “put a stumbling block (skandalon) in front of the blind.” Presumably this means they should not place an obstacle in the path of a blind person so that this person trips and falls. By extension the word comes to mean something that causes a person to stumble morally or spiritually, an offence, something that causes the downfall of a person. The verb skandalizein in the active voice describes the action of setting a trap or snare so that someone stumbles or, metaphorically, an action that gives or causes offence to another person. For example, Jesus in Matthew 18:6-9 used the active voice to warn his followers not to “give offense (skandalisēi)” to the least disciple. The passive voice defines a person who is offended or caused to commit moral failure by the actions of another. Sirach in a section (9:5) where he is giving advice concerning women warns males: “do not look intently at a virgin lest you be trapped (skandalisthēis) by her penalties.” However, as Stählin notes1 “there are no examples of use [of this verb] independent of the Bible.”2 In fact the moral or religious use of this terminology reflects Jewish practice, rather than Roman or Greek usage. The use of the noun in Joshua 23:13 illustrates clearly how the idea of a trap or snare finds application in spiritual contexts. God had mandated Israel to be an instrument of judgment upon the various peoples in Canaan. He warns Israel that if they fail to fulfill their responsibility and instead develop relationships with them to the point of intermarriage, then these peoples will become “snares and traps (skandala) and nails in your heels and darts in your eyes until you are destroyed from off this good land.” It is assumed that such relationships will result in idolatry. This idea becomes explicit in Judges 2:3 where the writer states that “their gods will be a snare (skandalon) to you.” The Psalmist reflects on this (105(106):36) part of Israel’s history and iterates that Israel succumbed to idolatry and “it became a snare or stumbling block (skandalon) to them.” The Wisdom of Solomon defines idolatry in the same terms (14:11).3 Within Jewish literature pagan religious practices often are characterized as traps or stumbling blocks for God’s covenant people, leading potentially to spiritual calamity.4 In the New Testament we only have one or two texts that define idolatry as a skandalon for Christians. In Revelation 2:14 an aberrant religious teaching is identified with the Old Testament actions of Balaam “who taught Balak to throw a stumbling block (balein skandalon)before the sons of Israel to eat things offered to idols and to commit sexual immorality.” Paul engaged the Corinthian Christians in the question of eating food offered to idols. He concluded that “if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin (skandalizei) , I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall (skandalisō)”(8:13).5 Within some segments of Judaism pagan religious practices were perceived as a trap or snare for the unwary. A Jewish person might be attracted to engage in such religious exercises for a variety of reasons, but such engagement becomes a religious snare, a point of stumbling, severely incapacitating their ability to serve the one true God. Within the Jewish context a skandalon describes something that interferes with and may ultimately destroy a person’s covenant relationship with God. Idolatry, the violation of the first of the Ten Commandments, epitomizes the most serious kind of skandalon. A second kind of skandalon that Jewish people encountered encompasses immoral action. Sexual temptation often becomes identified as a serious snare, particular for males. As we noted earlier Sirach (9:5), writing in the second century B.C., warned Jewish males about the trap a young virgin may create. In the Psalms of Solomon, probably dated to the 50- 60 B.C., the writer (probably belonging to the Pharisee sect), prays that God will keep him from “every wicked woman that causes the simple to stumble (skandalizousēs)”(16:7). Deceptive counsel formed a third type of skandalon, particularly when such advice led a Jewish person to transgress the law. The Psalms of Solomon contains a prayer in which the writer declares that “the Lord…shall save us from every stumbling block (skandalou)of the lawless” (4:23). Such people are viewed as schemers who actively seek the general destruction of the righteous, often by placing some kind of temptation in their pathway. The Psalmist also complains to God about the attempts by wicked people to secure his downfall. In the Greek translation of Psalm 140:6 (139:5 in Greek) we find the Psalmist declaring that “the arrogant hid a trap for me and they stretched cords as traps for my feet, close to a path they set an obstacle (skandalon) for me.” Again in 141:9 (140:9 in Greek) the Psalmist asks God to “keep me from the trap that they set for me and from the obstacles (skandalōn) of those who practice lawlessness.” He pleads with God to help him avoid practicing lawlessness, when enticed by sinful people, and stumble spiritually. The specific temptations might involve idolatry or sexual immorality, but would not be limited to these activities. I think we can conclude that this word group within the Jewish context primarily describes actions which cause a person to stumble spiritually, i.e. disobey God’s covenant. Sometimes the individual personally is to blame for this and sometimes other sinful people purposefully seek to engender spiritual destruction or cause a righteous person to stumble. Of course, what counts as a violation of the covenant is defined variously and so what might be a skandalon in one person’s perception may not be a skandalon for another. The danger is that a skandalon will result in apostasy. The person who lives within the covenant of God will find protection from stumbling. With this understanding of Jewish usage we can now begin to explore how Jewish-Christian writers employed this lexical group. What is striking is that in the Gospels and several of Paul’s letters Jesus the Messiah – his actions and teachings – are considered a skandalon within Judaism. There is a progression. First, Jesus’ actions and teachings caused the people, for example in Nazareth, to stumble (eskandalizonto) (Mark 6:3; Matt. 13:57). Instead of seeing Jesus as Messiah and one authorized to speak for God, teaching them God’s will and ways, they categorize him as a person who will cause Israel to stumble spiritually and disobey God’s covenant. When Jesus criticized the Pharisees for their misuse of religious tradition, his disciples reported that they are offended (eskandalisthēsan) (Matt. 15:12). These religious leaders construed Jesus as one who teaches contrary to the law and thus a spiritual deceiver and stumbling block for them and other Israelites. In their view, to follow Jesus is to stumble and demonstrate disloyalty to God. By using this terminology to categorize Jesus, they positioned him essentially as a false prophet, as a false teacher of the law, i.e. a heretic. Such language helps us understand their strong reaction against Jesus and they conspiracy to destroy him. Of course, it begs the question as to why they would not listen and Jesus diagnosed their spiritual condition as rebellious hard-heartedness. When Jesus was confronted by John’s disciples with the question “Are you the coming one or should we seek another?” (Matthew 11:3), Jesus used the categories of Isaiah 35:5-6 and 42:18 to demonstrate his messianic authority. But he encouraged John to trust in him saying “Whoever should not be caused to stumble over me is blessed” (Matthew 11:6). Jesus challenged John to use the proper biblical categories to assess him and his work, lest John be misled to react in a spiritually inappropriate and destructive way. In one case Jesus worked a miracle to provide money to pay the temple tax so that he would not cause needless stumbling among the Jewish religious leaders (17:27). In one of last prophecies Jesus told his own followers that “all of you shall be caused to stumble (skandalisthēsesthe) over me in this night” (Matthew 26:31; Mark 14:27). He knew what his arrest, trial and death would do to his followers. None would remain faithful. His arrest caused them to stumble, i.e. no longer follow him. A dead Messiah was a contradiction in terms within any Jewish frame of reference. Peter protested that “I shall never be caused to stumble (skandalisthēsontai)” over you (Matthew 26:33). His actions of denial a few hours later put the lie to his claim. Fortunately, their stumbling, i.e. failure to follow in this crisis, was not permanent because the resurrected Christ seeks them and restores them. Jesus also used this language to warn his followers about personal actions that could destroy their relationship with him as Messiah. In Matthew 5:29-30 and 18:6,9 (paralleled in Mark 9:42,43, 45-47) Jesus affirmed that the actions of eyes, hands or feet, reflecting our will and moral decisions, could “cause you to stumble” (skandalizei). The result is personal destruction in Gehenna (Matthew 5:29-30). Jesus urged his followers to control their wills and actions so that they can “enter into life”. We see in these teachings the seriousness of deliberate sinful choices. If our eyes, hands or feet, the most significant parts of our bodies involve us in sin, then how can we claim to be part of God’s Kingdom? In his final teaching to his disciples before the cross, Jesus explained how their mission beyond the cross would unfold. He warned them that “you shall be hated by all the nations because of my name and then many shall be caused to stumble (skandalisthēsontai)and they shall betray one another and hate one another” (24:10-11). Here we discern another usage. Persecution against Christians can result in some believers stumbling, i.e. no longer believing in Jesus as Messiah. Jesus had indicated this earlier in the parable of sower and soils. One group of Jesus followers has poorly formed faith and when “tribulations or persecutions because of the word happen, immediately they are caused to stumble (skandalizetai)” (13:21; Mark 4:17). Both Peter (1 Peter 2:8) and Paul (Romans 9:33) reference Isaiah 8:14; 28:16 (Greek version) and apply the expression “rock of stumbling (skandalou)” to the Messiah and his Gospel. Paul defined Israel’s rejection of the Messiah by this phrase, and Peter used it to refer to general human rejection of the Gospel. When people refuse to accept Jesus as Messiah and the basis for their salvation, their rejection brings God’s judgment upon them, i.e. they stumble to their destruction. When Jesus and the New Testament writers use this terminology, it is strong language. The warning inherent in it is very serious because it defines spiritual and moral actions that can affect a person’s relationship with God. The irony in the Gospel is that Jesus warns human beings against being a cause of stumbling, but he himself, as Messiah, becomes the source of stumbling for many who reject his message and its claims. We see the same irony expressed in the Epistles. Paul does not want his actions to be a stumbling-block to any believer; conversely he knows that when he presents the Gospel, he is presenting a “stumbling block to the Jews.” When society categorizes us as ‘stumbling-blocks’, it is not an easy title to bear. It suggests we are a destructive force in our communities. Yet, the very essence of the Gospel is designed to bring life and goodness. What does it take to change this characterization? Perhaps the apologetic of love is the only remedy, just as Jesus demonstrated his love by dying for those who were his enemies. Implications: what activities in my life creates a stumbling-block to the development of spiritual life? Am I prepared to take action to remove them? what behaviours of mine cause other believers engage in sinful activity? Do I love my fellow-believers enough to change? Do I love my family enough to change? when non-believers claim my Christian beliefs generate dissension and are objectionable or intolerant, destructive of the social fabric, am I willing to stand firm for them and bear the consequences?

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