“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 around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
There are certain things that you observe around you that let you know you’re in an election season. Campaign signs, mailers, televised debates, and endless commercials. And whether it’s a candidate or a proposition or school bond issue, one way they attempt to influence the voter is by making an appeal on behalf of the children. Candidates are pictured with children around them. Initiatives are promoted through children smiling and waving, perhaps even speaking words of their own scripted endorsement so that you, too, will support it. Either the person or the idea is presented as good because it is good for the children. And what kind of monster doesn’t want to do what is good for the children?
While some of this material is a shameless emotional appeal to mothers and fathers who want the best for their own children, such campaigning is also based on a premise that cannot be denied. Children are our future. The children of today are the grownups of tomorrow. And it is the same for the Church on earth.
Our Lord stresses heavily the upbringing of children, for the Church itself is always but one generation away from extinction. God does not mass-produce Christians. He makes them individually through the Holy Spirit creating faith in their hearts by means of His Word and Sacrament. This faith must be fed and sustained, just as the body must be continually nourished with food and water. And like the body, faith also can fall victim to disease, but not to the flu or a cold. Faith suffers the illness of being scandalized. A literal translation of Jesus’ words is “whoever scandalizes one of these little ones who believe in Me.”
To scandalize someone is to cause them to stumble—to shake the faith that they have in something or someone. We may have come to know the word scandal in our culture to be nothing more than juicy gossip that gives newspapers their cover story day after day—usually about a famous person’s private life. But in the biblical sense, the concept of a scandal is much more sinister. Jesus doesn’t leave any room for His people to be flippant about their behavior toward others, the little ones in particular.
Our text this morning follows the events of the reading from last Sunday, in which Jesus took up a child in His arms and declared that whoever receives such a little one in His name receives Him. This child is still in their midst today when Jesus warns against causing such a little one to sin.
Throughout the New Testament, little children are held up as the example of faith to the church. Jesus said explicitly that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. Why is this? We know from Scripture that children are not sinless. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The wages of sin is death, and we know that children, too, are subject to death. We know that they are conceived and born in sin, and that, like adults, they would be eternally lost without God’s saving grace. So what makes little children the examples of faith? Why is childlike faith revered above all?
We begin to understand the danger of scandalizing a little one when we come to realize the nature of a child’s faith. The faith of a little child is a faith that has been given through her baptism and is fed through hearing about her Savior Jesus. It is a faith that has not yet been subjected to the temptations of the world. A child is sinful by nature, but she doesn’t yet receive reinforcement of sinful behavior from others. She also has not yet been subjected to schoolteachers and college professors who will ridicule her because of her faith in Jesus.
A little child receives God’s Word, Christ Jesus, and trusts in Him without being attacked on all sides. A little child isn’t afraid of talking about her Savior because of what others will think! Hers is a complete faith and trust in her Redeemer Jesus. She may not be able to articulate it. A little child may not yet be able to understand the full meaning of all the words of the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed, but the faith of her heart is not contingent on the ability of her mind to process it.
This is another important aspect to remember, that faith is of the heart and not of the mind. Faith is not a mental exercise or a deliberate action of the will. Faith is not a decision that is entered upon and then never subject to second thoughts. Faith is God’s instrument for receiving His salvation by grace. It is God’s work, and it is His gift to us. And the faith of a little child is one that has been received and has not yet been polluted by the world. It is focused on Jesus and is not divided between Him and other things. The little child believes and has not yet been taught to doubt. Thus, the faith of a little child is the strongest and purest of all.
Woe, therefore, to anyone who would damage the faith of these little ones! Jesus isn’t being dramatic when He speaks of a millstone being hung around one’s neck, mob-style, and being thrown into the sea. It truly would be better for such a scandalous person to have that happen, because at least in the bottom of the sea one would not be able to scandalize any more children.
At this point, your thoughts might be focusing on a couple of more obvious scandals to children that receive such prominence in our day—child abusers and child predators. But as heinous as such crimes against children these may be, we need not go so far as physical abuse to truly scandalize a little one and cause them to sin. We need only consider what is needed to sustain a child’s faith and realize our own failings in our responsibility as Christians to nurture that faith.
At the end of our text, Jesus speaks of the saltiness of salt, and tells you to have salt in yourselves and be a peace with one another. Now, our Lord is not speaking of the level of sodium in one’s diet. Rather, He speaks about salt as it has always been used by man —as a preservative and seasoning. All our conduct as Christians is to be seasoned with salt. Our lives are not to be lived according to our sinful nature, but seasoned with God’s gifts of grace, which strengthen us against the temptation to sin and also enable us to give a faithful Christian witness to everyone. Your conduct, therefore, in every situation, must speak well of your Lord, and this includes your conduct toward His little ones.
Children don’t need any help being sinners, but woe to him who provides such help. This includes not just teaching one’s children sinful behavior by means of bad example, but also failing to bring up one’s children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Jesus does warn against outward sin against little children, but He speaks here more broadly against anything that damages a child’s faith. And there are plenty of ways that remain rampant among Christians.
Parents who bring their child to the waters of Holy Baptism promise to teach their children the ways of the Lord, and when they fail to do so, they not only break their promise, but they also cause their little one who believes in Jesus to stumble, because they starve their faith. A parent who doesn’t properly nourish their child with food, clothing, and shelter is charged by the state with neglect and child endangerment. A parent who doesn’t nourish a child’s faith neglects and endangers the child’s soul. It would be better if a millstone dragged such a teacher to the bottom of the sea, where they could not harm others.
The Christian congregation in general also has the responsibility to its young people to provide an example to them. Christians are to show love for the children of their parish and rejoice that they are there on the Lord’s Day to hear of Jesus and know that He died to forgive them of all their sins. Christian adults should be ready and willing to tell the little ones about Jesus in Sunday School. Pastors have the honor and privilege of assisting parents in the instruction of their children by meeting with the children during the week, to help them to examine themselves for worthy and prepared reception of their Lord’s body and blood in the Sacrament.
All Christians have the duty before God to nurture and encourage the Christians of tomorrow. We all have the responsibility to let our light shine before men and provide an example to those who are most impressionable. This applies not just to little ones, but even to adults who are still “little ones” in the faith. No one should conduct oneself in such a way that others are surprised to learn that one is a Christian. Your Christian faith should be known to others by the fruits you bear. Just as a good tree bears good fruit, so also does a true faith show itself through good works and example.
Your children are watching you, and so is the world. The world is waiting for you to slip up and provide them with the dirt of scandal. The world rejoices when the Christian causes the little ones to sin, for it confirms itself in its own rejection of Christ Jesus and basks in your failures.
Don’t give the world what it desires in finding excuse to reject the Gospel! As James said in our Epistle reading, resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Be humble, and speak evil of no one. Be imitators of Christ, who returned no evil for evil, who endured the cursings and revilings of the world, but who did not apologize for the truth and went to the cross for it.
Christ Jesus went to the cross for you. He went to the cross and died to atone for all of your weaknesses and all of your failings. He took all of your poor behavioral examples, all of your indifference, all of your lacking, and nailed it to that cross. He hung a great millstone around all the things you do as a sinner to cause His little ones to sin, and has cast them into the deep.
Your Lord Jesus has blessed you, His people of this particular time and place, with the gift of His Word that makes you wise unto salvation. And He has entrusted it to you for the instruction of the little ones. He gives to you His Word and faith to keep and preserve you, to equip you in your responsibility to future generations. And He invites you to receive from Him the strength to remain in that faith that trusts in the crucified and risen Lord.
This same faith He provides to the little ones that they would believe in Him unto life everlasting. His promises are as much to them as to you who have confessed your God-given faith. Therefore go, and in service to Him, render God-pleasing service to His little ones. Encourage them in the faith, teach them in the way they should go, so that when they are old, they do not depart from it.
Our Lord bless and keep you strong and steadfast in His Word, and sustain you according to His faithful promise, that you would be an example to the little ones who will carry the faith to the end. Go in the peace of the Lord and serve Him and with joy. You are forgiven all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.