“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”
Who are these “little ones” of whom Jesus speaks? What exactly is our responsibility to them? On the surface, it seems obvious. Jesus has made mention of children multiple times in the surrounding verses. He said a few verses prior, “Whoever receives . . . [a] child in my name receives me” (Mark 9:37). A few verses later, he says, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Mark 10:15). Therefore, he may be talking about children here.
However, the Greek here is a bit more ambiguous. In addition to children, it is entirely possible that Jesus is talking about new believers, less mature believers, or more vulnerable members of this faith community. In this way, the Apostle Paul may be building on and clarifying this teaching of Jesus when he writes to the Romans:
Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. . . . We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. (Romans 14:13; 15:1-2)
If read Jesus’ words in this light, he is teaching us that the way of the Kingdom of God is counter to the ways of this world. The world seems to function on the premise that knowledge should bring privilege. The more we know, the more we should be able to enjoy the perks and the “good life.” The disciples were echoing this way of worldly-thinking and trying to claim this privilege in the previous verses when they sought to exclude the exorcist and put a stop to his ministry of healing (see Mark 9:38-41). He was not one of “them,” so he should not be authorized to work “in Jesus’ name.” They seem to suggest that the disciples alone should have the privilege of representing Jesus and healing in his name.
Jesus seems to be playing a whole different game here. Instead of knowledge bringing privilege, Jesus suggests that knowledge brings responsibility. The more mature you are, the longer you have been walking this journey of faith, the more you have “little ones” all around – those who are younger, weaker, less mature in the faith. Therefore, you must watch yourself – your words, your actions, the way you welcome or push away, the way you heal or wound, the way you embody the expansive love of Christ or heighten the boundaries to keep others out. You will be held accountable for your actions towards those “little ones.”
Maturity is a great thing. Spiritual growth is a great thing. Intimacy with Christ is great thing. As Jesus said, though, “From the one who was entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”