Most of us know the image backing the word “scandalize;” i.e., somebody tripping over a stone in the road. An Academy Award winner, for instance, walking elegantly across a stage, eyes fixed on the Oscar – and then stumbling over a floor light to fall on his reddened face. Surprise, but moreso, embarrassment.
Of the four gospel writers, it’s Mark who most consistently strikes this note of embarrassed stumbling when describing Jesus’ twelve disciples. Time and again, they think they get it. But on their way to get it, they trip and fall ingloriously.
In Mark’s tenth chapter, it’s James and John who tumble. They have been travelling with Jesus on what might be called His “miracle tour,” and have been visualizing how things will be for them when Jesus triumphs and is exuberantly acclaimed as the long-expected Messiah. Their ship will have come in with his and they’ll be sharing in all the adulation.
A particularly red-faced stumble occurs when Jesus tells them they are heading not toward acclaim but rather suffering and disgrace. He underlines this by stressing that he didn’t come to be served but rather to serve, even to the point of dying for the good of the other.
Mark is writing for the disappointed, also disillusioned, first generation of Christians who also have faltered in their sense of Jesus’ mission. They were anticipating esteem and large numbers; they got tiny crowds and even persecution.
“Tripped up!” How does that figure into anyone’s following of Christ? Can we think of miscalculations made about the direction of our discipleship?
For instance, I thought following Jesus would admit me to the “in crowd,” presuming that my childhood experience of everyone in the neighborhood as a churchgoer would go on indefinitely. Today the percentage of Catholics (particularly young Catholics) attending Mass has fallen off dramatically. The majority used to be there in the pews with me; now it’s an smaller and smaller minority who come.
I thought priests and religious were paradigms of discipleship, reliable models of how to follow the Lord. But the sexual betrayals by many in Catholic countries, most recently France, have so tarnished their reputation that the reflex reaction of many to the word “priest” has reversed. No longer do many parents think an ordained son would be bringing honor to the family name.
I thought that affiliation with the Christian religion would be a foregone conclusion for anyone with a heightened sense of the spiritual. But those who call themselves “Nones” (checking off “religious affiliation, None” on admissions forms) are saying they don’t connect their awareness of “Something More” with our religious tradition.
Are we not ourselves now getting tripped up by such developments? Are we not, like James and John, being taken aback by this person Jesus who tells us that the road ahead is not the socially popular one.
Following the road behind the Lord Jesus Christ is not without its bumps and false steps along the way. Encouraging a disheartened confrere, St. Vincent writes, “The children of our Lord walk gladly in His ways; they have confidence in Him. And so when they fall, they rise again; and if, instead of stopping to grumble about the stone they have tripped over, they humble themselves at their fall. This helps them to advance with great strides in His love.” (Vol 3, p 343. To Claude Dufour, July 24, 1648)
This Lord we follow promises to take us past all the detours, beyond all the miscalculations of how we thought it was going to be. In word and action He proclaims, “I am with you always,” not just in the triumphs, but especially in the stumbling times. When it seems His light is dimming, He assures us we will not be left orphans.