This quote of Jesus has been used (or mis-used) for eons to browbeat non-suspecting Christians into lock-step submission. In my younger church-going days there was ample talk of stumbling blocks. “You don’t want to cause anyone to stumble,” or “be careful of your ‘weaker brother,'” they might say. (“Weaker brother” was a biblical term, often infused with spiritual pride, subtly inferring that some are more spiritually evolved or “mature” than others for whom we must make behavioral concessions). (Meanwhile, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”) Jn. 13:34-35).
We generally interpreted this stumbling blocks thing as a call to caution for how we conducted ourselves before our peers. “Cool,” I thought … “so all I gotta do is not do any of the following: drink Budweiser (or merlot, or Jack, or …), smoke Marlboros (or …), say s*%t or d@#n or h&!l or drop any f-bombs, dance (leads to sex), have sex (of course), attend the cool parties (that’s where everybody goes to drink the Budweiser, etc.), see R-rated movies (also lead to sex), enter “The Railroad Cafe” (a popular bar back home), or “The Seahorse” (dance club), listen to anything other than “Christian” music (even though it’s impossible for music, an inanimate creation, to actually be Christian), play cards (aka “toys of the devil”), play roulette, attend a KISS (or fill-in-the-blank rock band) concert, wear the t-shirt from said KISS concert, play with a Ouija board, go to the mall, or hang out with anyone who does do any of the above. I’ll admit that for much of my life, I subjected myself to these very stringent codes of conduct (not always perfectly, but I gave it a pretty good shot) … thinking I was doing God and the world around me a huge favor. (I hate to admit that).
But there was a problem … my motive. It wasn’t so much that I thought all of these things were inherently wrong; or even that I cared so much about my “weaker brothers.” My motive was primarily fear … fear of what others might think of me. That fear, mixed with a dash of spiritual pride, made for a fairly withdrawn and quietly judgmental “stronger brother.” (I hate admitting that, too). Another problem was that it simply didn’t work. To my knowledge, it never … ever resulted in a single person declaring that, so inspired was he by my shining example, that he just had to have a piece of that Jesus stuff for himself … quite the contrary, actually. In reality, the only real thing I may have achieved was to alienate myself from most anyone who might have wanted a piece of that … had I simply engaged myself in them, vested myself in them … loved them. (“A new command I give you: Love one another …”).
I’ve often thought it peculiar how we obsess over these stumbling blocks, but often completely ignore one much larger … that of projecting to the world around us the impression that following Jesus, (the most courageous, recklessly loving, radically free and dynamic individual ever to walk the earth), consists of burdening ourselves with a cumbersome (and often arbitrary) load of “thou shalt nots;” or a truckload of habits that frankly, in many cases are irrelevant, and have little to do with true spiritual connection to a living and loving God. It’s as if in our attempt to display our spiritual vibrancy, we essentially chained ourselves to an anvil, and then expected the world around us to swoon with admiration of our enlightened piety, and desperately pine to get in on it too. Really?
Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting that we engage in behaviors that are harmful or contrary to one’s spiritual conscience (and some of that noted above certainly is). Nor am I suggesting that our conduct does not send ripples of influence into the universe in every direction, and that we should not be cognizant of this fact. But it seems to me that the greater stumbling block we may lay is the one that declares that following Jesus is an exercise in trepidation, unnecessarily alienating ourselves from our peers, shackling ourselves in paranoia to the doorposts of the church as if bunkered down in a Cold War fallout shelter, hiding out like scared little boys behind mama’s skirt, and simply not doing a bunch of outward stuff … much of which is neither inherently harmful, sinful, nor specifically prohibited by scripture. (Meanwhile, “For freedom Christ has set us free” Gal. 5:1). Do we really wish to paint a picture of discipleship that is fraught with fear, arbitrary repression, and punitive self-enslavement to or from things that have little, if anything, to do with actually following Jesus, the most courageous character in history? It strikes me as a sort of neurotic spiritual timidity … one for which I’ve been abundantly guilty in my life. (Yes, I hate admitting that one, too). (Meanwhile, (“A new command I give you: Love one another …”).
One hallmark of Jesus’ character was his stubborn insistence upon affiliating with the “wrong” kinds of people (so-called “tax collectors and sinners” … first century vernacular for swindlers, crooks, druggies, whores, etc.). Apparently, the Savior of the world was unwilling to allow the opinions of others to stand in the way of him simply giving love to people … any people who were willing to receive it. If that meant going to the house of a notorious thieving scumbag (Zacchaeus) for dinner, or befriending a suspected harlot (Mary Magdalene), or openly fraternizing with a rightly reputed foreign adulteress … then so be it.
And wasn’t it Jesus who said it’s the things that come from inside of us (i.e. our hearts) that defile us (Matt 15:18)? Maybe it’s not necessarily that high school dance, or “The Railroad Cafe”, or the Budweiser, or the cabernet sauvignon, or the … after all.
(“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”).
What would it look like if we simply focused our spiritual and behavioral energies on the major issues of loving God and loving one another … kinda like Jesus did? Interesting to me that this was the one and only means by which he assured that “everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Nonetheless, I’d still like to request just one small exception. Can we still go ahead and veto the Ouija boards? They’re just dumb.