Here it is:
And whoever shall be a snare to one of the little ones who believe, it were better for him if a millstone were hung about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.
And if your hand serve as a snare to you, cut it off: it is better for you to enter into life maimed, than having your two hands to go away into hell, into the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot serve as a snare to you, cut it off: it is better for you to enter into life lame, than having your two feet to be cast into hell, into the unquenchable fire
And if your eye serve as a snare to you, pluck it out: it is better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the hell of fire where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.
The little ones here are not primarily children, but all those of any age who have placed their trust in the fatherly God.
This is a passage which goes against many people’s image of Jesus as gentle and mild. These words are as stern and forceful as those of any Old Testament lawgiver of prophet. They are also disturbing for those like me who refuse to think of God as someone who punishes. Jesus does not attribute the punishment directly to God, but we are surely meant to imagine a God of justice whose universal law will give pain to those who have chosen pain for others.
But that’s not the main thrust of the passage, which says bluntly that if there are aspects of our character that lead us into evil, we should get rid of them as quickly and violently as possible. This runs counter to most modern psychology which tends to see such aspects as the result of deprivation or trauma, that may therefore be understood and reclaimed. No, says Jesus, if there are bits of us that cause is to harm the little ones, they have to go. Now. He does not explain how exactly this is to be done, but insists that it will be painful. Recognising that impulses to evil are not accidental, but as much part of us as hands or eyes is the necessary and painful start, and we must then be prepared to cripple ourselves in order to prevent harm to others. This doesn’t sound much like ‘our precious saviour’.
I am writing this blog only a couple days after hearing the news about Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, the community of able and disabled people, whose theology of “the weakness of God” and whose life of service to disabled people and of spiritual illumination for all, was an inspiration for many, including me.
An enquiry has found that he was also a serial abuser of women for sexual purposes.
Those, like me, who thought of Vanier as a saint, making sure that we had read all his writings, find ourselves bewildered and depressed by this news: Jean Vanier, the prophet of gentleness and humility, how could he be a predator?
I suppose it is possible that he was completely corrupt, and that all his apparent goodness was but a cover for abuse. I think this is unlikely, but we should not diminish the terrible evil done to these women. I think it more likely, however, that he was ensnared by his own reputation for saintliness, into imagining that anything he did would be all right, because it was done by him. That is a particularly dangerous form of arrogance, which deprives a person of ordinary self-knowledge. I can bear witness that my own worst actions have proceeded from arrogance, when my reputation as an agent of goodness, led me to forget my identity as a sinner. In my case this scenario was infrequent because I have only infrequently (like once or twice!) been seen as an agent of goodness, but if it can happen to me, how much more likely is it for people who have brought great goodness into the world!
It may be that allowing ourselves to respond to the glamour of a great saint does the saint no favours, but may contribute to the sort of arrogance which made it possible for Vanier to tell his victims that he was Jesus. That blasphemy from a holy man indicates the extent to which arrogance can make us blind.
In any case, the sad truth about Jean Vanier leads me to value the spirituality of Jesus expressed above, even if it makes me realise, or perhaps because it makes me realise, uncomfortable truths about myself. It is exactly the kind of robust, down-to-earth, almost brutal common sense, that keeps me ( sometimes) straight.
The news about Jean Vanier shocked me and saddened me very deeply. I have always admired his work, and of course L’Arche played a big role in the life of another of my heroes, Henri Nouwen. Your commentary is very well-thought and I thank you for your personal investment in what you wrote.
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My church doesn’t believe in prayers for the dead, but I do. I pray that God has placed Jean Vanier in the refining fire from which he will emerge cleansed and fit for heaven. If God is merciful I might meet JV in the fire.