Jesus said to his disciples, "Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive." The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.”
In the previous chapters Jesus faced those who were outside his immediate community – the crowds, the Scribes, the Pharisees – but now he faces his disciples. They will be the leaders of the new community, and he tells them they are not to be stumbling blocks to others. The “little ones” are not children but “the poor” of the Beatitudes (Lk 6:20-23): those who will be in the care of his disciples. In Matthew also the “little children” are adults, because “they believe in me” (Mt 18:5). Certainly Jesus had compared the true disciple to a child, but then he went on to talk about disciples, not about children.
The millstones in this passage, then, are for Church leaders, if they fail those in their charge. They are not to scandalise their flock. They are to have the courage to point out wrongdoing, but at the same time they are to be ready to forgive wrongdoing against themselves – even to forgive the same person “seven times a day.” That means endlessly. “How could we ever live up to that?” they seem to ask, “Lord increase our faith!”
And when the leaders have done all that, they are to say, “We are merely servants; we have done no more than our duty” (verse 10). It’s not surprising that St Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) wrote, “It is much safer to be in a subordinate position than in authority.”
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