“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me…” A sharp warning, with no guarantee that it’s not also applicable to us hearers. So let’s chew on it a bit.
Today’s reading is part of a unit that perhaps starts in v.30 with Jesus warning the disciples “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands” (v.31). And we think “the hands of the priests, Romans, etc.” But then Mark tells us about the disciples arguing over who’s the greatest, John rebuking an unaffiliated exorcist, and (later) the disciples rebuking the folk bringing little children to Jesus—so maybe Jesus’ “human hands” isn’t about them.
Stumbling blocks look like one of the ongoing topics in Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees and scribes, e.g., hand-washing, where Jesus cites Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, / but their hearts are far from me; / in vain do they worship me, / teaching human precepts as doctrines” and concludes “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (7:6b-8).
And there’s the challenge, because from the inside it can be really hard to distinguish between the commandment of God and human tradition. It’s easy to assume that our human traditions faithfully reflect God’s commandment.
So Jesus’ warning isn’t superfluous. Ironically, tragically, we have an example in today’s epistle: “women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (vv.34-35). Our Lectionary omits these verses, for on text-critical grounds they’re “almost certainly an early gloss” (Hays), not to mention flatly contradicting Paul’s earlier words (11:2-16). It’s those stumbling blocks we put in place with the best (?!) of motives…
The psalmist got it right: after eloquently praising the Law, “But who can detect their errors? / Clear me from hidden faults” (19:12).