In recent years we have heard about various scandals: Enron, Monica and of course the horrible sexual abuse of children by clergy. The media use the word to refer to something shameful, done in secret, which later becomes public.
The Bible employs the word in a somewhat different sense. Etymologically, it come from the Greek skandalon, which was a trap-stick or bent sapling used for a snare. With a skandalon a hunter could catch a rabbit or other small prey. Following the Bible, the Catechism defines scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” (#2284) The media quite naturally focus on the external aspects; what matters to Jesus is the effect on each individual soul.*
Jesus today speaks about those who scandalize (entrap) little ones. It might happen deliberately, like Fagan teaching boys how to pick pockets. Or it could occur by accident – an adult leaving a pornographic magazine where a child might pick it up. Jesus implies that either way the punishment will be severe.
I remember seeing a movie where people had heavy rocks tied to their legs which dragged them over the side of a boat. It was horrifying. Jesus says a similar punishment awaits the person who causes a little one to sin. The way we dress, the way we talk, what we watch on TV, the magazines we read, the websites we visit – these are serious matters.
The thought of scandalizing another person (causing him to sin) can help us recognize the seriousness of our actions. Once I talked with an older woman who saw nothing wrong with having a boyfriend. “We are both adults. It is perfectly natural.” None of my arguments impressed her. Finally, I asked if that was the example she wanted to give her children – and grandchildren. She started to say, “It’s none of their…” but then stopped.
Jesus says what to do if ones hand, eye or foot scandalizes (“causes to sin”). Have them amputated. Here he uses a forceful expression to shock us out of our complacency.** He is hardly advocating mutilation which itself is a grave sin. Nevertheless, it would be better to be separated from ones hand or foot than suffer eternal separation from God.
At all costs we must avoid giving scandal, that is, causing someone to sin. St. Paul goes so far as to tell the Romans to avoid a neutral activity (in that case, eating meat used in pagan sacrifices) if it causes another person to stumble. (Rom 14:21)
Having warned about giving scandal, I must add that we can fall into something equally deadly – namely, taking scandal. It can happen when we see the weaknesses, the dark side of other Christians. A friend of mine had the unfortunate experience of hearing a priest swear (use the Lord's name in vain) when he got mad. His shock was no doubt legitimate, “How can he celebrate Mass then use Jesus' name as an expletive?” But my friend took his shock a step further. He concluded that the priest was a hypocrite - and that he was just one of many hypocritical representatives of the Church. He took scandal and it became a convenient excuse to pull back from the faith.
I have talked to people for whom the current sex abuse scandals became an occasion to slacken their efforts to live the faith – or a confirmation of their own tepidity. One lady told me all the headlines were causing her to lose her faith. I knew her well enough to say, “Come on, girl. You weren’t doing that great before this started!”
St. Paul says that for some of his fellow Jews the cross of Christ was a “scandal.” (1Cor 1:23) They did not see how God could permit such weakness and disgrace. We have become accustomed to the cross, but today the shame of Christ’s Body (the Church) can separate some from God – perhaps, eternally.
St. Therese shows the right approach. As a young girl she participated in a pilgrimage to Rome. In her autobiography she notes that a few of the priests engaged in bad behavior. She doesn’t get specific, but it may have been stuff like gambling, drinking or eating to excess, flirting, exploding when something didn’t go how they wanted. Or maybe worse things. At any rate, Therese’s response was not condemnation, but a recognition of her vocation to pray for priests.
Ultimately, the issue of scandal comes down to whether we accept the humanity of Jesus and his shocking forgiveness of sins. The Catechism sums up the challenge:
Jesus gave scandal above all when he identified his merciful conduct toward sinners with God's own attitude toward them. He went so far as to hint that by sharing the table of sinners he was admitting them to the messianic banquet. But it was most especially by forgiving sins that Jesus placed the religious authorities of Israel on the horns of a dilemma. Were they not entitled to demand in consternation, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" By forgiving sins Jesus either is blaspheming as a man who made himself God's equal, or is speaking the truth and his person really does make present and reveal God's name. (#589)
*In exposing the scandal, the media also defined it: the sexual abuse of children by priests and the cover-up by bishops. However, anyone who followed the story closely knows: 1) egregious sexual abuse of children has been happening in many other institutions and they dealt with it in a manner similar to the Catholic bishops and 2) what went on was not so much sexual abuse of children as widespread cases of homosexual behavior with young men. The latter, often involving alcohol, pornography and drugs, more precisely fits to what Jesus refers to as "causing others to sin."
**Similar to when he said to call no man father, doctor, mister...
From Archives (Homily for 26th Sunday, Year B, 2000): False Comfort
1997 homily: Everything Else is Small Potatoes
Bulletin (Architect Kevin Broderick, Things Go Better With God, Raffle)
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Paid to Picket Antichurch protesters get a little help from their (lawyer) friends - Forbes Magazine
See also comment by Bill Donohue: “The nexus has now been revealed: victims’ lawyers are greasing victims’ advocacy groups. Shame on SNAP and Linkup for allowing these lawyers to pimp them...”
Blind to the Spirit: How the Media Treat Religion (Reporters Just Don't Get It)
Reflections on John Paul II in Slovakia; The pope's health; Bits of color from the Slovakia trip; Beatifying Mother Teresa (National Catholic Reporter article)