From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance (skandalon) to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mt 16:21–23)
Matthew’s gospel places this passage directly after the one in which Simon, having confessed that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” becomes Peter, the rock (petra) on which Jesus will build his church (Mt 16:15–20). This inspired juxtaposition points to the problem that has plagued Christianity from the very beginning. The word skandalon, “stumbling block” or “rock upon which one stumbles,” has two basic uses in the New Testament: 1) what drives people away from God; 2) what Christianity is.
The most frequent meaning of skandalon is “cause for sin,” that is, something that separates people from God. There is, quite literally, nothing worse. Jesus warns of this in terrifying terms:
Whoever is a skandalon to one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of these skandala; it is necessary that skandala come, but woe to the man through whom the skandalon comes! And if your hand or your foot is a skandalon for you, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life (zoē) maimed or lamed than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye is a skandalon for you, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Mt 18:6-9; cf. Mt 5:29-30, Mk 9:42-47, Lk 17:1-2)
On the other hand, skandalon also refers to the unique way “Jesus thrown everything off balance,” to quote the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”1 Paul declares, “We preach Christ crucified, a skandalon to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23), and elsewhere proclaims “the skandalon of the Cross” (Gal 5:11). Similarly, Peter (“Rocky”) quotes at length the Old Testament “stone” passages (Is 28:16, Ps 118:22, Is 8:14-15) prophesying the skandalon that Jesus is to be (1 Pet 2:6-8; cf. Rom 9:33).
Reflecting on these two kinds of skandala may be helpful as we thread our way through the obstacle course of this world.
The Scandal of Business as Usual
It is right to be horrified by the gruesome front-page scandals perpetrated by Christian authority figures who abuse their power. Evil so immense deeply wounds the Body of Christ and sledgehammers Christians’ credibility (even though Jesus predicted it). Remarkably, however, this is not the kind of skandalon for which Jesus so vehemently rebukes Peter. Can you imagine what it must have felt like for the leader of the apostles to hear his beloved Master call him “Satan”? And the only thing Peter did wrong was react like a normal person when Jesus began to explain about the necessity of the Cross.
This should give us pause. All that is necessary for the triumph of Satan is for Christians to behave like normal people.
If our will is truly aligned with God’s—like that of Dante-pilgrim after climbing Mount Purgatory, “free, upright, and whole” (libero, dritto e sano, Purg. 27.140)—then we can act with confidence that by following our desires we are pursuing the right goods in the right way. Here is a test to see if that is the case: Do I ever value earthly “likes” for posting a snarky remark more than heavenly “hallelujahs” for not posting it? Behave as if the object of the game were to accumulate things rather than to give them away? Secretly congratulate myself for being holier than other people? Envy those who actually are? Try to make things grow by pulling on them? Experience anxiety about the future, rather than trusting in God’s grand plan of love for my life and all lives? Court the “in crowd” rather than the awkward and lonely? View my own needs as more important that someone else’s? Spend more time on the internet than in prayer and adoration? React defensively? Fail to forgive? Treat any human being as an instrument, annoyance, or irrelevance rather than as a gift more precious than the whole material universe?
I can truthfully answer “no” to the first question, because I don’t do social media and wouldn’t know how to post something if I wanted to. (I put that one in to keep my spirits up.) For everything else, I need forgiveness. Furthermore, resisting those temptations seems impossible without a miraculous transformation of my entire being.
This transformation is what the New Testament calls metanoia. The usual translations of “repentance” or “conversion” do not do it justice. It means the total remaking of mind and heart, the rebirth in Christ that occasions a transition from biological life (bios) to divine life (zoē). It is not a one-time occurrence, but a process, in which we constantly fail, confess, receive forgiveness, and are thereby incorporated into the community of Love that God is (2 Pet 1:4). It is the telos of human existence, and there is no other solution to the problems that face our world.
So how do we get there? A good place to start is by asking God for the right thing.
The Scandal of Meekness
“Oh, it’s the meek! Blessed are the meek! Oh, that’s nice, isn’t it? I’m glad they’re gettin’ something, ’cause they ’ave a ’ell of a time.”
As this famous scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) illustrates, meekness—along with its sisters “lowliness” and “humility,” alternate translations of Greek tapeinōsis (“lowness”)—is generally not something the world understands, values, or practices. One of the online comments posted about the movie clip declares, “What Jesus fails to appreciate is that it’s the meek that are the problem.” There is no value system outside of Christianity that considers meekness a virtue, and most would consider it a contemptible vice. We instinctively rebel against the very thought of asking for it.
Nevertheless, the biblical witness is clear:
- “He has put down the mighty from their seat, and has exalted the humble and meek” (Lk 1:52);
- “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am meek and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:29);
- “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth” (Is 53:7).
The Word who speaks the universe into existence began his life on earth as the most helpless of creatures, a human zygote, and ended it by allowing himself to be tortured to death before his mother’s eyes. The Lion of Judah became the sacrificial lamb.
Part of the scandal of the Cross is the scandal of meekness—that is, the strength to bear wrongs patiently, placing our trust in God rather than in our own efforts. To understand why this is essential, we need to understand the nature of the war we are fighting.
Satan’s Lie is that God is a patriarchal bully who wants to take away our pleasures, our rights, and our freedom. Our troubles stem from believing the Lie (Gen 3:4–6). Whenever we attempt to impose our vision by force, especially if it involves cutting a moral corner or two and putting our trust in powerful people (cf. Ps 146:3), we reinforce the Lie.
Instead, our goal should be to refute it. This refutation can be accomplished only by replacing the Lie with the truth foreshadowed in the Old Testament and revealed most perfectly in Jesus: that what God wants for us is only and always the fullness of joy, which is the purpose of the moral rules he gives us; that he is the most passionate yet tender, gentle, and courteous of lovers, always inviting but never forcing us; that he creates every human soul to be a paradise in which he delights, for a little while on earth and forever in heaven. To experience true metanoia is to awaken to the realization, “I am the Beloved to whom the Creator of the universe sings, ‘Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away!’ He would have created the whole shebang ex nihilo, and even allowed himself to be tortured to death and eaten, for me alone!” The sign of this awakening is an overwhelming gratitude, accompanied by a sorrow for having received his love so imperfectly and a desire to be cleansed and healed in the stream of his inexhaustible mercy and forgiveness.
No one has ever been drawn toward this truth through shaming or criticism, but many have been driven away from it. Note that Jesus’s wrath is directed entirely at religious people whose words and actions obstruct a right understanding of God’s love, skandala in the first sense. Who would want to spend eternity gazing upon the fair beauty of an abusive boyfriend? If we are ever tempted to think we really crushed our opponents—through a legal victory, an unanswerable argument, or a brilliant witticism—we can be pretty sure we have triggered a defensive reaction that reinforces Satan’s Lie and creates antibodies against metanoia.
That is why meekness matters. Certainly, we should learn as much as possible about our faith and be prepared to explain, with gentleness and reverence, the reason for the hope that is in us (1 Pet 3:15). But when attacked, we should pray for the grace to rejoice quietly in persecution, bless those who curse us, and join our sufferings to those of Christ.
- As Robert Barron observes in his introduction to The Priority of Christ: Toward a Post-Liberal Catholicism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), “This troubling and strange story is a particularly apt metaphor for the relationship between modernity and the late-medieval form of Christianity that gave rise to it” (12).