The Twentieth Sunday After Trinity October 24, 2004
44, 433, 409, 416
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to Hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into Hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into Hell fire where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt. Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.
In Christ Jesus who is our Leader, dear fellow redeemed:
Each of us is a leader. Whether you know it or not, there are people who are following you and you are following others. In a world that has slogans such as, “Just do it!” “Live Free!” “Do what feels good!” and other wide open directives, it seems odd to talk about leadership and about leading on one particular path. Yet, as children of God, we know the one path down which we wish to travel. It is the path that is illuminated with God’s Word. It is the path down which Christ Himself draws us.
Along the way there are going to be pitfalls, dangerous traps, things that can damage if not destroy our faith. We, being led by our Savior, will walk through them or around them and will not be harmed by them. But if we forsake the lead of our Savior and follow a different leader, those traps and pitfalls could signal our demise.
Today we use the words of Jesus and consider that we need to DEFEND AGAINST OFFENSE.
An “offense” as Scripture speaks of it is not a matter of merely being offended because I didn’t like what you had to say. A scriptural “offense” is literally a “death trap” that is set for your soul. Picture a big claw trap right in the middle of your path. At the very least it will crush your leg should you step in it. Now apply that to your soul. When we talk about an offense as God speaks of it, we’re not talking about a trap that damages a leg, or a finger, or another bodily limb. We are talking about a trap that can destroy your soul and your body in Hell. That kind of an offense is what we need to defend against. Using Jesus’ words we will consider that we need to I. Defend against causing others to stumble and we need to II. Defend against what causes us to stumble.
The defense against offense begins with the understanding that each of you has a responsibility to everyone else. Every child of God is walking his own path through his own life as led by the Savior. Nonetheless, we interact with each other, we spend time together, and we deal with one another. In this life of interaction with one another—both Christians and non-Christians—you have a responsibility for the souls of everyone else with whom you come in contact. It is true that a person’s salvation and his soul’s health is a personal issue between that individual and God. However, insofar as you are able to help that individual in his spiritual walk, you have a responsibility toward that soul as well.
Human nature says, “No. It is not my responsibility. You take care of your business and I’ll take care of mine.” That is exactly what Cain said when God came to him and confronted him concerning his murdering of Abel, his brother. Cain tried to dismiss his responsibility by asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). Yes, he was and yes, he failed because he murdered his brother.
Writing to the Philippians, Paul says that we should look out for one another: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Jesus places upon you the responsibility of looking out for others insofar as you are able to provide help and inasmuch as you have contact with them. Jesus places upon you a responsibility to help them physically, but even more so spiritually in their faith life and their walk ever heavenward.
With that responsibility to look out for others, their spiritual needs, and their whole being we turn to Jesus’ words, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me—yes, little children, but also anyone who trusts Jesus with a childlike faith—to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” [v.42] That is how serious God makes your responsibility.
What we might lay as a stumbling block for someone else’s faith may not be the one thing that will cause him to lose his faith. A trap doesn’t always kill. But a trap will always injure. Whether the trap I lay only causes a momentary stumble or something more serious is immaterial. I do not have to kill a person’s faith to be responsible. Jesus says, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble…” If I am responsible in any way for causing someone else to sin, Jesus says it would be better to have a millstone hung around my neck and be thrown into the midst of the sea.
The reason Jesus speaks so strongly and so seriously about our responsibility toward others’ souls is that there are eternal consequences. Imagine contributing to a trap that would cause someone to stumble in his faith and eventually lead him to lose his faith and be damned eternally! This is a grave responsibility.
There are many ways by which we can set spiritual traps. Perhaps the most obvious is if we treat sin lightly or encourage someone in his sin. If I am treating sin lightly, joking about it, laughing it off, not being too concerned about a particular sin, what impression does that leave for the other person? If others are trying to walk in a path of faithfulness to Christ and we are joking about what is contrary to God and His Word, what kind of example are we setting? Where will our example lead them? What will they think?
Now, we might say, “others will know better and will never follow our example.” Don’t be so sure. “If they follow my mistakes that’s their problem.” No, God says, “Let each of you look out for the interests of others.” If you, especially as a fellow child of God, make trivial the things that God does not make trivial, if you are laughing off things that are sin and a fellow Christian sees you doing that, it is a trap. You can be sure Satan will be right there ready to tempt them, “You see! He did it! Don’t you see what she is doing? You’re a Christian, they’re Christians, so go ahead!” And thus, a trap is set.
There is a specific example that Paul gives in 1 Corinthians and one that also particularly applies to our present day. Paul cautions against sexual immorality and speaks of the unique nature of it because it automatically includes more than one person. If we are guilty of sexual sins—either adultery by the married or premarital sex by the unmarried—we are involving someone else in our sin. We’re sinning against God, we’re sinning against the person with whom we are involved, and we’re sinning against our own bodies which are the temples of the Holy Spirit. Paul writes, “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For ‘the two,’ He says, ‘shall become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:16-20).
It has become so common in our world that one person influences or pressures another into sexual sins. Does that person understand and realize that by the very nature of what he is doing he is leading his “friend” down a path and into a trap that endangers a soul and its eternal life? Does the person stop to think about the trap that is being set in all the sexual perversion and sexual enticements in the world? Just imagine what would happen if, instead of the advertising industry going for the mighty dollar and using sexuality in every possible way to sell a product, if just once they had concern for someone’s soul instead of the money they would make by what they’re doing. Then all of a sudden the pornographic material and sexual enticements would be gone and the trap would be closed and safely on the side of the path. This is not the case. The traps continue to be set.
Another example that God gives us comes in connection with the eighth commandment. The eighth commandment forbids false witness. False witness is not just things that are lies, but even the truth if it comes form a false heart. Martin Luther explains the eighth commandment by saying it means we take all the words and actions of one another in the best possible way. Gossiping, assuming the worst, and speaking against someone else’s reputation sets traps. I might tell you something about someone else and the next time you see that person your mind will turn to what I said. Your view of that person has been changed.
Our voices and words are powerful weapons which can lead someone else to believe a lie, to question others, to grow angry, and to treat others based upon what we’ve said. Our words, our testimony of others have the ability to create a great many pitfalls and traps.
Jesus says that these offenses will come. You cannot walk the path of this sinful world without facing the traps and pitfalls of temptation, but Jesus says, “Woe to the person who has set the traps” (Matthew 18:7). We can say things and we can do things which leave an example for others and leads them. We do well to stand guard and defend against creating an offense by our example.
Parents, what example are you setting for your children? Certainly, every one of you seeks to set the best example possible. Yet, at the same time, we have weaknesses and every one of us will at times set a bad example. Beware! Watch and pray that you do not set a spiritual death trap!
It is not just parents who lead and set examples. Peers, classmates, people with whom you go to school—what are you saying to others, how are you treating them, what are you doing? Is what you’re doing looking out for everyone’s spiritual well-being? Ask yourselves, “Am I following my emotions and choosing to do things out of my own sin, my pride, or my anger without looking out for the souls of others?”
In today’s Epistle reading, Paul pointed out that we might even have the freedom under God’s Law to do what we’re doing or to say what we’re saying, but if this would hurt the faith and spiritual walk of another believer, then by all means I do not want to do it. In 1 Corinthians Paul says that if eating meat makes my brother stumble, “I’ll never eat meat again. (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:13), but will do whatever I need to do so that I am looking out for the well-being of another soul.”
Our “looking out for the souls” of those who are not in the family of God is to share the Gospel with them. It is to bring them the news that Jesus died for their sins, that they have a Savior. It is to bring the Gospel to them so that by the working of the Holy Spirit they will be on the path that follows the leader, Jesus.
As we seek to look out and guard ourselves against causing others to stumble, we also need to take good care in guarding our own spiritual walk. It is never an excuse for one to blame another and say that he wasn’t careful enough with my soul. I cannot say, “If you wouldn’t have done that I would not have sinned.” You are responsible for watching out for me as I am for you, but when we fall we can never use the other person as an excuse. So, each of us individually, needs to take heed to our own souls, our own spiritual walk, and whatever might cause us to stumble.
Jesus uses three examples: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to go to Heaven maimed with one hand than to go to Hell with two…If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to go to Heaven lame with one leg than to go to Hell with two…If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better to go into Heaven blind with one eye than to go to Hell with two.” [vv.43-48] With each of these examples Jesus impresses the seriousness of the situation by saying that Hell is the place where “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” [vv.44,46,48] Hell is eternal, ongoing misery and destruction.
If there is something in our lives that is leading us to stumble, we do well to cut it off before the trap is set and sprung and has done its damage. This may be a circle of friends, it may be a habit into which we’ve fallen, it may be what we use for entertainment, it may be how we spend our free time, it may even be the place where I work or how I work. Whatever it may be, if there is an aspect of our lives that is consistently leading us into temptation and causing us to sin, Jesus says that it is better to cut it off from your life and pursue another way. Cutting it off will hurt. It may hurt emotionally, it may hurt physically, it could even hurt financially. But better to be hurt now than lost eternally in destruction.
In writing to the pastor, Timothy, Paul encouraged him to first take heed to himself and the doctrine so that what he would teach to the others would be beneficial to them (cf. 1 Timothy 4:16). Defending against offense starts in our own lives and in our own hearts. Defense begins by examining carefully what God’s Word says, comparing that to our lives, cutting off what is dangerous, cutting off what is tempting, cutting off what is creating offenses for ourselves or others, and following our leader, Jesus.
Jesus used salt as an example. “Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.” [v.50] Jesus said in Matthew, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). You are the preserving factor in this earth because you are the children of God. But if you are following another path, a different leader, and setting death traps, you are losing your saltiness. Go back to the Gospel and be reinvigorated with the true salt of Jesus’ Word. Be at peace with one another, guarding and helping one another against the offense.
When we consider the seriousness of the responsibility for our own souls as well as others we could very easily collapse under the weight of guilt and be led to despair. I know that I have said things and done things that have caused stumbling in others and I’m sure that you have too. I know for a fact that I have weaknesses which the Devil uses against me to tempt me and I fall. This is why we come to the cross and can humbly stand in awe because Jesus our Savior died there to wash away all of our sins. Jesus, our Savior, died there to cleanse us from all of our guilt. His promise of forgiveness is ours. His promise is in Scripture to strengthen us and to enable us to defend ourselves and others against every offense.
May the Lord, our Leader, strengthen us, keep us, and bless us. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.