Jesus said to his disciples: “It is impossible for scandals not to happen. But woe to the person through whom they happen! It is better for that person to have a millstone hung around the neck, and be thrown into the sea, than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. Even if he sins against you seven times a day, yet turns to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
Luke 17: 1-4
The focus in the preceding chapter of Luke’s gospel has been the conflict between Jess and the Pharisees. But at this point, Jesus turns his attention to his disciples, to relationships within the community. Today’s gospel reminds us that good and evil, light and darkness are not a matter of a division among the good and evil people, but rather reside in the hearts of all, those outside and those within the community. Scandals will always occur, says Jesus, but woe to us when we are not always doing our best to avoid them, when we fail to “pay attention to” ourselves.
Perhaps at least some of us are old enough to remember being told by our parents, when we’d created one of the many and persistent mini and not so mini scandals of childhood, that we were “too big for our britches.” In this passage Luke uses for the only time in his entire gospel an expression that is a favorite of Matthew to describe the members of the community: the “little ones.” Unlike other types of associations, the Christian community of disciples is made up of those who know their own “littleness.” We get in trouble and bring scandal to others and the community when we forget how small we are, when we get “too big for our britches.”
The most necessary dispositions of a gospel community are humility and forgiveness, even more than love and charity. This is so precisely because “It is impossible for scandals not to happen.” That is, as fallen human beings we will inevitably fail the demands of love and charity. Every one of us will inevitably hurt others whom we love. We live lives of conflicting drives and aspirations. The more we recognize the love that God has for us, the more we recognize how persistently unfaithful we are in our response to that love due to the limits of our capacity for love. Yet, as long as we remember the truth of our own sinfulness and smallness (in Jesus’ terms “pay attention to” ourselves), the better the chance that we shall not inflict the results of that sinfulness on others. Yet, however sincere and diligent our efforts to pay attention, we shall inevitably fail at times in our love of others. Thus, forgiveness must always be at the heart of life together.
Paradoxically enough, one of the ways we can most care for those around us and foster a deeper sense of community is to “mind our own business.” Although this directive is not explicitly expressed in the gospel, its practice grounds many of the virtues to which the gospel summons us. When I am minding my own business, I am not worried about, and so interfering in, the lives and affairs of others. When I appreciate that I have my hands full trying to do my own duty in life, I am not involved in judging and gossiping about others.
St. John of the Cross offers the following counsel: “You should live in the monastery as though no one else were in it.” Certainly John does not mean by this not to care about and for one’s brothers and sisters. But he does remind us that doing God’s will in our own lives is a full time occupation, and that the call and fidelity of others is not our business. When, in the right way, we are minding our own business we don’t have the time to be comparing ourselves to and judging the lives of others. In my experience, there are few spiritual practices that are more difficult than “minding my own business.” Busying myself with the lives of others is perhaps the most convenient way to avoid the hard work of authentically and responsibly living my own call. The gospel community is one in which its members recognize that we are all but “little ones” who are doing our best to be faithful to the Love that has given us life.
These are the few ways we can practice humility:
To speak as little as possible of one’s self.
To mind one’s own business.
Not to want to manage other people’s affairs.
To avoid curiosity.
To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
To pass over the mistakes of others.
To accept insults and injuries.
To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.
To be kind and gentle even under provocation.
Never to stand on one’s dignity.
To choose always the hardest.
Mother Teresa, The Joy in Loving: A Guide to Daily Living