READ : Matthew 18:6-9
Have you ever thought about the power of your influence? Jesus said some pretty sobering things about the way we can influence others, especially if we influence them toward bad things rather than good. We would do well to listen to him.
I want to think with you today about the power of influence. Not everyone has power, but everyone does have influence. You may not have much money or fame or authority, but you do have influence. Of course, the more of those other things you have, the greater your influence will be also. And some people have positions that naturally expand and enhance their influence: politicians, teachers, writers, pastors; but also celebrities, athletes, journalists, and TV personalties. But whoever you are and whatever you do, you too have influence. You influence your kids and grandkids, your friends and extended family members, your neighbors, the folks in your church, at your workplace, the people with whom you socialize. It’s an important responsibility, and a sobering one.
I wonder: Have you ever thought about the power of your personal influence? Have you ever considered the fact that you will have to answer for how you have used that in the Day of Judgment? That is the clear implication of what Jesus says to his disciples in the gospel.
Jesus talks about how we influence others, and how others’ influence can affect us, in a passage near the beginning of Matthew 18. Some of what he says here sounds strange; much of it sounds familiar – we’ve heard it before, in the Sermon on the Mount – but all of it sounds shocking.
Whoever . . . causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear 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.” (vv. 6-9)
Our Influence on Others
Jesus is clearly referring to personal influence when he talks about causing “one of these little ones to sin.” But who does Jesus means by “these little ones” who could be led into sin through the words or example or actions of others? He has just been using the model of a young child to teach the disciples an important lesson about humility and grace (vv. 1-4), so obviously he would still be referring to children. But not only to children.
There are all sorts of ways in which people could be described as little: little in years, of course, but also little in strength or power, little in importance, little in status, little in wealth, little in ability. The poor, the weak in mind or body, the elderly, the uneducated, the powerless, and the voiceless – the world has little interest in the little, people like that. But not Jesus. He is the God of the little, and he wants us to be careful of them as well.
So in one obvious sense his words are a powerful warning against any kind of abuse or exploitation of children. But every normal person naturally recoils from that. It’s the one thing we agree on: it’s hideous. It doesn’t take Jesus to tell us that it’s wrong to hurt kids.
I can think of a lot of other examples, though, besides literal child abuse, in which we do harm or corrupt the “little ones” in our society today. Consider these, for example:
- schools that prohibit prayer, but dispense condoms and birth control pills to 12- and 13-year-olds.
- cynical college professors who enjoy “deconstructing” their students’ faith.
- church leaders – church leaders – who urge young people to sexual immorality.
- parents who by their words and example teach their children racial prejudice, or contempt for the poor, or hatred of foreigners.
- authorities who by their brutality or indifference or corruption push society’s have-nots into rage or violence.
Even in small ways on a personal level, we have a danger of tempting and corrupting little ones. Think of people who drink in front of alcoholics or serve hot fudge sundaes to diabetics, or buy lottery tickets with gambling addicts.
You see what I mean. In dozens of ways, both large and small, we can and do influence people who are weaker than we are, and if we influence them in the wrong way to go against what they believe, to cause them to undermine their self-control or stifle the voice of their conscience, we are sinning. Whether intentionally or inadvertently, we play the role of the devil, tempting others to do wrong. There is something particularly demonic about the relish with which some go about trying to make other people compromise their moral standards. But know this too: a terrible judgment is in store for those who use their influence to hurt the weak or defenseless.
Jesus says that for those who do such things, it would be better if they had a millstone fastened around their neck and were drowned in the depths of the sea. To the Jews of the Bible, the sea was the most terrifying place on earth. If Jesus suggests that being dragged down to the depths in a horrible fate would actually be preferable to becoming a stumbling block to another person, imagine what actually does lie in store for those who are guilty of being the cause of sin in another. “Woe to the world for its temptations, for its stumbling blocks,” declares Jesus, “and woe to those who place them in front of others” (v. 7). Sin and temptation are going to happen – the world’s full of them – but woe to the individual through whom it comes.
Others’ Influence on Us
So here’s one side of Jesus’ instruction to his church. “Woe to the tempter,” he says, “to the evil influencer.” But here’s the opposite side. What about when we are being tempted, what should we do then? Listen to him again:
And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. . . . And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye . . . it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than to be thrown into the hell of fire.
Jesus is speaking with deliberate exaggeration. He doesn’t mean to be taken literally. He’s not recommending that we actually mutilate ourselves to keep from sinning, which, as some Christians’ experience has proven, doesn’t work anyway.
No, what Jesus means here is that we must strive for self-discipline, and he tells us we have to be utterly ruthless about it. You know there is a place for hard-nosed fighting in the Christian life, and it’s not fighting against other people. It is fighting against our own sins and our own temptations. Jesus used exactly this same language in the Sermon on the Mount when he was talking about dealing with the problem of lust. Self-discipline begins with the control of our eye, that is, of our imagination and our thoughts. “Whenever men and women have learned self-control in deed,” writes John Stott, “it is because they have first learned it in the eyes of both flesh and fantasy.”
So Jesus’ suggestions for how to deal with temptation are very practical actually. There is no denying, though, that they are also radical and painful. We have to fight hard and most of us, I’m afraid, have instead made an easy peace with our sins. But “If your eye causes you to sin,” Jesus says, that is, if your temptations are related to things that you are viewing, to the television you watch, to the books you read, the Internet sites you visit – then “tear it out and throw it away.” Stop watching. Don’t look. Get rid of it.
“If your hand causes you to sin” – if you find yourself getting into trouble because of what you are doing, because, for example, you find yourself continually reaching for a certain kind of food or drink that you know you can’t handle – then “cut it off and throw it away.” Or if it’s your foot that is always taking you to places and into company that is bad for you, then get rid of it and limp along without it. This is Jesus’ harsh counsel.
But, you know, if you have cancer, you don’t want a timid, half-hearted surgeon. A doctor who is afraid to cut you will end up killing you. You want someone who will cut deep and get it all, even if it costs you an eye or a limb. Because, as Jesus goes on to say, it’s much better to be wounded than to be destroyed, to be partially handicapped than to be entirely damned. According to no less an authority than Jesus Christ himself, for those who refuse to turn from sin, hell is a very real possibility.
In all that he says here, one thing comes through loud and clear: Jesus hates sin, and the causes of sin. And he wants us to be utterly ruthless in resisting it. So where can we find the strength to say no? Christians have an answer. I don’t mean to imply that it’s an easy answer. I don’t mean to say that the battle will be quickly won. But the gospel gives believers a resource in the fight against sin and temptation that others don’t have – and it is Jesus himself.
Jesus is the grace of God that has appeared for the salvation of the whole world, writes Paul. He teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives (Titus 2:11-12). If you come to Christ in faith, if you yield your life entirely to his lordship and open yourself to his Spirit and pray for his power to make you holy, he will. Your struggles won’t be ended all at once, but they will end eventually – in victory.