This coming Sunday is the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we looked at the ongoing context for Luke’s narrative. Today, although occurring just before the Sunday gospel reading, we will consider the opening verses of Luke 17: 1 He said to his disciples, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.
These two sayings are connected by the words skandala (v. 1) and skandalizo (v. 2). The original meaning of this word group skandal- was “trap;” or, more specifically a trap’s tripping mechanism. The word group is sued to translate the Hebrew próskomma, meaning both “trap” and “stumbling block” or, “cause of ruin.” In the latter sense, this transferred to the religious setting to mean “cause of sin.” But is “cause of sin” the best translation here? Paul says that Christ crucified is a stumbling block (skándalon) to the Jews (1 Cor 1:23) and describes the cross as a stumbling block (skándalon) (Galatians 5:11). Consider three other modern gospel translations, all noted for faithful adherence to translation.
“Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2 It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (NRSV)
“It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! 2 “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (NASB)
“Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” (ESV)
Either “stumble” or “cause to sin” are valid translations. I would suggest “stumble” given the context of these verses following Jesus’ warnings (direct and via parable) against injustice, indifference, and a lack of hospitality towards those in need – “the little ones,” e.g., Lazarus (16:19-31), the prodigal son (15:11-32), and the poor, crippled, blind and lame (14:12-14). All of these demonstrated behaviors are hostile and in opposition to the Reign of God where the invitation is for all. To set up barriers that keep some outside the kingdom is to become a stumbling block of witness for all – especially those who would be found and restored to the community (cf. Luke 15:1-10, the parables of the lost and found).
With the graphic image of the millstone (see note below), Jesus says it would be better to drown than to become the barrier to another’s repentance and restoration. The watery death is an echo of the fate that befell the rich man (16:24-28) who suffered eternal, fiery torment.
Image credit: G Corrigan, CC-BY-NC 2.0