These are the words of Christ. He tells us that scandals are not only likely to happen – but that they will happen. They are necessary (ἀνάγκη).
Most readers will marvel that this is a quote from Jesus. The reason is simple: the Greek (ἀνάγκη γάρ ἐστιν ἐλθεῖν τὰ σκάνδαλα) is rarely translated in such a manner. “Stumbling blocks,” or “offenses,” is the more common way to render the word skandala (σκάνδαλα). But the Greek has a very simple cognate in English: scandal.
Why would Christ tell his disciples that scandals must come? It is a description of the nature of things in this world. The entrance of the Kingdom of God and its dwelling among men is not such that men will cease to be broken or evil. Christ warned His disciples that he himself would be betrayed – not by strangers – but by one of them!
And this has ever been the case. From the earliest days of the faith, disciples have been betrayed, misled, robbed, deceived, cheated, taught falsely, raped and abused. There has never been an idyllic season of the Church when such scandals have been absent. In Western Europe where various reform movements have remade Christianity repeatedly – circumstances have presented scandals needing attention – but reforms have never succeeded in ending them. Christ’s words remain true regardless.
Of course, no religious group is free of scandal – I am not as familiar with those of others as I am of our own – but everybody’s got them. And the non-religious are as scandal-ridden as the religious. Hypocrisy is equal opportunity. The problem does not lie within religion or its absence – it is an inherent part of the human condition.
What of Christ’s words? Are scandals part of some Divine Plan? I think that would take his words in the wrong way. The passage begins with the warning, “Woe to the world because of scandals!” and concludes, “Woe to that man by whom the scandal comes!” Of course, the great scandal, is the “falling away,” warned of by Christ and the apostles.
[Christ, speaking of the time of great troubles] And then many will be scandalized, and will betray one another, and will hate one another (Matt. 24:10).
And St. Paul:
[speaking of the coming of Christ] Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first… (2 Thess. 2:3)
We can speculate about the internal nature of the great scandal or the falling away. But there is no New Testament version of the Christian faith that does not contain this aspect. It is part of the most primitive layer of Apostolic Tradition. It is part of Christ’s own teaching.
My experience as a Christian has been that everything “rhymes” with the larger picture of the faith. We can speak about the “last days,” and waste time speculating about such things. But Christian history has been replete with days that fit the pattern offered for those times. There is no Christian journey that is without scandal and a falling away. If we do not fall away, it is not because it never crossed our mind. Everyman in the course of a lifetime has the chance to be Peter or Judas.
If there is an inner necessity to the scandal, it is not within the scandal itself. The inner necessity is within us. The temptation that accompanies scandal is something that must be faced and overcome. Apparently, we cannot enter the kingdom of God without it.
Scandal (a “cause of stumbling”) comes in many forms. It can be as bold as corruption in the hierarchy, or moral turpitude within a priest. It can also be a prayer that we perceive to have been unanswered or God’s strange absence when we thought we could count on him. Anything that causes us to lose heart, to quit, to abandon the journey qualifies as scandal.
We admire the great martyrs and the courage of their suffering. But in most lives, suffering has a very banal quality: it offers us little chance to play the hero. I am very fond of the books on the life and work of Father Arseny. His stories are those of a saint in the Soviet Gulag. Some of the stories are quite miraculous, but most are born of the grace-filled ability to bear the innumerable indignities of a single hour, day after day. Such martyrdom over a period of decades is frightfully boring and tedious. And it is the boredom and tedium that become the scandal that he endured.
Scandal tests and proves the life of the heart. A life lived in the mind (thoughts and emotions) will endure scandal only with the greatest difficulty. Whatever the insult created by an actual scandal, the mind and the emotions will magnify it, rehearse it, argue with it, judge it, replay it repeatedly, become angry and despondent. The work of the mind is much harder to bear than the scandal itself. We are scandalized by our own passions.
The heart does not seek to judge. It understands the nature of righteousness and is not surprised by the presence of sin.
However, I take heart that Christ’s warning concerning the scandal that must come offers no condemnation for those who fall. His truly serious warning is for the one through whom the scandal comes. We all fall (at least everyone I know falls). I pray that when I stumble, I take no one with me. God give us grace.
I find these two prayers (from Orthodox Daily Prayers) to be of great help:
Save, Lord, and have mercy on those whom I have caused to stumble, turning them away from the path of salvation and leading them to evil and unseemly deeds. Return them to the path of salvation by Thy Divine Providence.
Save, Lord, and have mercy on those who hate and offend me, and do me harm. Do not let them perish because of me.