Today’s readings for Mass cut right into our hearts. They remind us that “The word of God is sharper than any double-edged sword; it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit . . . .” (Heb. 4:12) Jesus’ words cut into our hearts. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)
The danger when we hear these words is to think only how others have sinned and to be filled with anger toward them. But then the Bible is being used as a sword of judgment of others, rather than a Word that pierces my soul. The Scriptures can do us more harm than good, if we only apply them to others. Listen to the Word today as a communal examination of conscience.
- What patterns of sin in our church or nation are laid bare as we hear the Lord Jesus speak these words?
- What sins in my heart are revealed?
The main challenge of the Gospel regards scandal. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin. . .” A more literal translation is “Whoever scandalizes one of these little ones who believe in me.” Scandalize might mean “cause to sin.” It also means to “pervert or mislead someone,” in such a way that we cause others to lose their faith and fall away from God.
The “little ones who believe” are catechumens, recent converts, or people of low esteem. Little ones might be people who have no voice in society. They might be the poor or less educated.
“Whoever scandalizes one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)
With that verse in mind, I will address three major causes of scandal in society. The first has dominated in the news – the scandal of church leaders who failed to protect children from abuse. A central aspect of the scandal is the break in trust with bishops. It is not only that children were abused, but that bishops betrayed our trust. The scandal is a break in trust. People are asking:
- How do we know they will do the right thing?
- Will they protect the little ones?
- Will they use their authority to serve?
Last week, Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” (Mk. 9:35) Bishops are being reminded of our mission to serve the least, to use our authority to be a servant of all, especially to protect the least.
‘Protection’ is a main theme in the Scriptures when the little ones are mentioned. In the Old Testament, God asserts unequivocally that he protects orphans, widows and immigrant foreigners who have no one else to protect them. God hears them when they cry out to heaven for help.
In his recent letter Pope Francis stated that God hears the cries of the victims of abuse. He wrote: “The heart-wrenching pains of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced. But their outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence it . . . The Lord heard that cry and once again showed us on which side he stands.”
The opposite of scandalizing the little ones is to hear their cry for help, and protect the least. We betrayed that mission. The Word of God is calling us to task.
There are two other scandals that have been with us for a long time, so it is easy to become desensitized to them. The scandal for both of them is rooted in our failure to recognize the dignity of the people involved.
First, the child in the womb cries out to us and says, “I am beautiful and precious in God’s eyes. He hears my cry. Will you hear my cry? Listen to my voice, as you also listen to the voice of my mother who also suffers alone and receives little help from society. We are both God’s little ones. Remember, Jesus said, “Whatever you did to the least brothers (or sisters) of mine, you did to me.” (Matt. 25:40)
Just as we mourn the children wounded by abuse, we need to keep in mind the children in the womb who are often ignored. Their cries are heard in heaven.
Finally, our treatment of poor refugees and immigrants is a source of scandal. This is a touchy topic, and people are easily offended when it is mentioned. A few basic questions as we consider immigrants and refugees as God’s little ones: Do we see their dignity as human beings created in the image and likeness of God? Do we see them as people like us? Would I want to be treated like that? Do we hear their cries?
Often they work in the poorest jobs and for the least wages. They work hours that no one else wants to work. Because they may not have the proper documents, they are not treated with dignity. St. James speaks about this scandal today, “Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” (James 5:4)
Immigrants and refugees are some of the little ones who believe in Jesus, but we scandalize them by the way we ignore them or separate their children or fail to pay them just wages.
In the Bible, certain grievous sins cry out to heaven. As St. James says, injustice to a poor wage earner is a sin that cries out to heaven. In the Old Testament, oppression of the orphan, widow or foreign immigrant are sins that cry out to heaven. Thus, killing a child in the womb is surely a sin that cries out to heaven. Mindful of this teaching, Pope Francis includes the atrocities of sexual abuse as a sin that cries out to heaven.
These sins scandalize the little ones who believe. They scandalize because those in power do not listen to the little ones. They ignore their cries, mistreat or even kill them. But “their cries have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” Almighty God will give them justice. We are his agents. As faithful disciples, we are supposed to imitate God’s care for the least.
The opposite of scandalizing the little ones is to hear their cry for help and protect the least. Will we hear their cries and protect them?