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  • Stumbling Stones and Millstones – Luke 17.1-4

    Parable of the baker and the beggar

    Once upon a time in a faraway land, the King went away on a long journey, leaving the governance of His country in the hands of the sheriff.

    In the village was a skillful baker who made delicious treats. Pies, pastries, and every imaginable variety of indescribable, mouthwatering delights filled his window display. There was also a young street urchin who was always very, very hungry, but never had anything to eat. 

    Of course, the starving child was drawn to do her begging outside the baker’s shop, where she could smell the sweet delights as they baked, and where she could look through the window and see all of the delectable treats on display. She longed to taste just a bite of the baker’s masterpieces, but knew that if she were to steal even a crumb, the sheriff would have her beaten and put in stocks. That was the law of the land when it came to stealing. 

    The baker was a cruel man, however, and whenever he saw the child begging in front of his shop, he would pile a tray high with pastries, scones, and bread – oh that wonderful smelling bread! Then the baker would go out to the girl and hold the tray in front of her face and describe in exquisite detail how he made each one. He told her how he would fold-in butter to make the flakiest crusts, and how he would glaze each croissant, and how he would dust them with chocolate and powdered sugar. 

    But when the baker came out with his tray or treats, the little girl dared not touch one single tempting trifle, for she knew that this was a trap. The baker did not like having her in front of his shop, because it was bad for business to have such a filthy guttersnipe begging from his would-be customers. Miserably, he wanted this little mudlark to steal just one morsel of his bread so that he might call the sheriff and have the poor child beaten and taken away.

    In the beginning the ragamuffin child was able to close her eyes and resist the baker’s powerful temptations. But eventually she was overwhelmed by the aroma of warm bread as it wafted into her nose. Her hunger would pair with her childishness, and together they would get the best of her; she would lose self control, and take one of the loaves or dishes. In that moment of weakness she would succumb to temptation and gorge herself on the delicious, tasty bait while the baker called the sheriff to have her taken away and beaten for stealing.

    Some of the baker’s customers saw this sinister act the baker played, but most of them said nothing. They just paid for their pies and cakes, and then went about their business. “After all,” they said, “It’s not the baker’s fault – the decision to steal was the beggar’s and hers alone. Besides, she should know better than to stand in front of this shop where temptation is so strong.” 

    And they were right – no one forced the girl to steal. In the end, even though the baker tempted her, only she was ultimately responsible for her decision to take what was not hers. She was not wise to put herself in temptation’s way by standing in front of the baker’s shop. It would have been much less tempting for her if she had chosen a better perch; perhaps a bank or the tailor instead of the baker. It was hard to argue with the sheriff and the silent majority who placed the full responsibility for the girl’s actions on her shoulders. The letter of the law held no contempt for the baker who took so much pleasure in manipulating his prey.

    There were, however, some who objected to the baker’s tactics and the sheriff’s merciless approach to the young girl’s transgressions. While they agreed that the girl was indeed responsible for her own choices, they also felt that the baker’s efforts to snare the girl by wagging his tray of tempting treats in her face was, at best, an awfully mean trick. Certainly the sheriff should have taken the child’s situation and the baker’s cruelty into account as mitigating factors when her sentence was handed down.

    But the sheriff did not show leniency. And the baker kept tormenting the child, week after week, month after month. The child never learned to control her urges and flee youthful desires. In the end the only thing she learned was that she was a criminal, and she began to see herself as nothing more.

    Those who objected to the baker’s schemes simply stopped going to his shop, but the baker hardly noticed their absence. Some of those good-natured souls tried to help the beggar, but she always returned to the bittersweet display window where she had been defeated so many times before. 

    The who wanted to help her couldn’t understand why she simply couldn’t stay away from such an obvious trap. But over time the girl had become so defeated by her own choices that she saw herself as the world saw her – if the sheriff called her a thief, and the baker called her a thief, and most of the villagers called her a thief, then she must be a thief. And so she allowed herself to be drawn deeper and deeper into the dark vortex of sin and shame, and the village watched the young girl grow up to become a gaunt crow with no light in her eyes. 

    One day the King returned from His journey and demanded an accounting from the sheriff for everything that had taken place in His absence. When he heard the story of the little girl who had become a hopeless wretch, He was furious. He called the baker in and had him beaten and put in the stocks, pronouncing, 

    “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 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.” (Luke 17.1)

    Then He had the sheriff stripped of all authority, beaten with many blows and put in the dungeon, declaring, “I entrusted you to execute justice, but you have missed the point.”

    Finally, the King sought out the girl. He took to the streets and combed every back alley until he found her, crouching in a corner with powdered sugar caked on her wrinkled and dirty hands and her defeated face. When she recognized who it was, she could not bear to lift her eyes and look at the King. A thief knows her place. She expected the king to drag her out into the street and expose her shame to the world, but He had something much different in mind.

    “Woman,” he said. “Where are your accusers?” (see John 8.10)

    “I don’t know,” she replied. “They are gone. Are you here to punish me?”

    “No, daughter. Your sentence is commuted. I can do that. Go and steal no more.” 

    The King continued, “You have nothing to eat, while I have plenty. Come and eat at my table all the rest of the days of your life. I will see to it that you need never go hungry again.”  

    I am troubled by a culture that rightfully proclaims that women should be treated with dignity and respect while it blindly applauds a raunchy, oversexualized halftime show. The Me Too Movement is hardly perfect, but the basic idea is an extremely refreshing step in the right direction for a culture that generally objectifies women who were made in God’s image. 

    But the movement loses all credibility when it says nothing against the exploitation of women by the greed of corporate entertainment. The priests and priestesses who work at the altars of Hollywood seem to get a free pass when it comes to their hand that inordinately influences our culture; God alone knows what deals those producers made with the devil to be granted  immunity by the interviewers when it comes to the glorification of violence and the demoralization of women. Perhaps the line between entertainment and news has become so blurred that there is no difference. How can the news possibly be expected to hold corporate entertainment accountable when all news - (whether conservative, liberal, or otherwise) - is itself a form of corporate entertainment?

    The shadow commentators on our screens pretend to be shocked when people give in to the temptations their Hollywood cousins so skillfully wag before our eyes.  Mass shootings? Sex crimes? Hollywood and the corporate entertainment machine tirelessly crank-out the very scripts of violence and sexual depravity that mass shooters and sex criminals follow to the letter. Yet we are too blinded by the sequins that baselessly bestow social authority on celebrities to ask them to tone it down a bit. 

    I am in no way excusing any of us for our own, sinful behavior – every one of us will have to give an account for our deeds. I believe in personal responsibility. We must never blame anyone but ourselves for our choices. Just as the child in our little parable should not have stood in front of the baker’s shop because she knew it would tempt her too much, so all of us would be wise to simply stay away from every situation where we know we will be tempted. Close your eyes. Leave the room. Go for a walk around the block. 

    “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” (2 Timothy 2.22)

    Generally, our justice system does not hold those who tempt others to commit crimes responsible. Instead we accuse only those who give in to the temptation and commit the crime. Legally speaking, if a playground bully provokes one child to lash out in anger at another, the bully is not technically responsible. The child who lashed out should have controlled himself.  If an erotic dance stirs some teenager watching the halftime show with his girlfriend to become inappropriately aggressive, it is not technically the dancer's fault, but the young man’s. If a baker tempts a beggar with bread and the beggar steals it, again, the law is clear: the crime and the punishment all belong to the beggar.

    But Jesus has a different standard for His disciples. The bar is higher. Jesus teaches that He will also hold accountable those of us who claim to be his disciples and yet cause others to sin by deliberately setting temptation, or stumbling stones, in their paths. Jesus uses the most severe imagery of punishment to describe His plans for His followers who lead others into temptation: it would be better if an anchor were tied to our necks and then dropped into the darkest abyss. I cartainly hope for everyone in the NFL and for J Lo's sake that none of them profess to be followers of Jesus Christ, or He will apply this grave standard to them.

    What is the Takeaway?

    If we claim to be disciples, we must pay careful attention to our lives. We are rarely critical enough of ourselves, but the Scriptures teach us to be sober in our self-assessment.

    “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise” (Ephesians 5.15)

    “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (Romans 12.3)

    If you and I are causing others to stumble through our words or actions, Jesus puts the onus on us to get it straight out of consideration for the other person. 

    As far as I can see in this passage, Jesus is only addressing his disciples here, and not the rest of the world. While it may be within the NFL’s rights to fein no part in the objectification of women through it’s halftime entertainment, we who love Jesus are held to a higher standard. 

    Temptation will come. But woe be unto the one through whom it comes. 

    May it never be said of us. And if it is, may God’s grace cover our weaknesses so that we may be freed from the anchor that holds our sins on the bottom of the ocean floor.

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