The Greek word ‘skandalon’ is the root of our English word ‘scandal’. It means ‘stumbling block.’
But it should mean ‘something that causes people to argue.’
The idea of ‘stumbling blocks’ recurs throughout the Bible, especially the New Testament. And it’s a bit weird.
When Jesus’ warned his close friends that he would be killed, one of them, Peter, said it would never happen. In response, Jesus called him a stumbling block (Matthew 16:23).
The early churches were told to consider their example so that they didn’t mislead or be a ‘stumbling block’ to others (Romans 14:13, 1 Corinthians 8:9).
And with graphic hyperbole, Jesus preached that if parts of our bodies cause us to stumble then we would be better off losing those parts altogether. (Seriously, don’t take this literally! Matthew 5:29-30; Matthew 18:6-9; Mark 9:42-47.)
So stumbling blocks are… bad?
But on the flip side, the New Testament says Jesus is a stumbling-block.
Simeon said it first. He told Mary that Jesus would be a sign that was spoken against (Luke 2:34) and that people would ‘rise and fall’ because of Jesus. People’s positions would be inverted – like how Mary described in her song.
I want to be clear: Jesus is not bad. He never wanted people to sin on his account and he never caused anyone to sin. But he caused people to argue. Why? Because he revealed people’s innermost thoughts. He brought out people’s prejudices and made their inward hate manifest outwardly, publicly.
And the problem wasn’t just what he said, but also who he was. Conceived out of wedlock; a friend of ‘sinners’ and prostitutes; and last – but by no means least – crucified under Roman rule. Jesus was a walking, talking scandal that the world couldn’t fathom.
That’s why he quoted an Old Testament psalm, referring to himself: “The stone the builders rejected, has become the cornerstone.” (Psalm 118:25-26; Matthew 21:42.)
The implication is that he really was God’s Special Someone, the Anointed One – but people didn’t recognise him for who he was. He didn’t look like the Messiah they’d imagined.
Maybe that’s why the Old Testament prophecies said the Messiah wouldn’t judge by appearances.
And maybe that’s why we can find comfort in him when we’ve felt scandalous in one way or another.
A short look at the Bible
There are four passages in Isaiah known as the ‘servant songs.’ Today’s reading is the last of them: Isaiah 52:13-52:12.
And it will probably take some explaining.
My best friend once told me the story of Jesus’s life was a classic tragedy. He started with such promise and anticipation, his ministry was full of wisdom and transformation, but his friends never really understood him and his enemies killed him.
So it’s weird trying to explain how Jesus’s birth was good news. I want to celebrate life, but it was his unjust death that brought salvation.
The Jews of Jesus’s day were similarly baffled – probably more so. Of all the things they expected the Messiah/Christ to be and to do, they did not expect him to be executed by foreigners. It’s a historical puzzle as to why his following didn’t crumble. And as strange and unscientific as this may sound, there’s only one answer that really fits: Jesus rose from the dead afterwards.
In the days after his resurrection, Jesus’s followers had to get over some serious disbelief and astonishment. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Jesus explained it was long foretold that the Christ would suffer and die.
And I expect these servant songs were a big part of that explanation.
As I’ve said before, prophecy is a complex genre, full of ambiguity and open to interpretation. But curiously, Isaiah’s servant songs seem to be neither about Israel as a nation, nor about the foreign nations. They seem to be about an individual who was one of the Jewish people. Tellingly, in Isaiah 53:8, it says this person suffered for the rebellion of “my people” or “his people” (depending on which translation you go for).
The point is, Israel cannot be both the wayward nation in need of redemption and the righteous innocent who redeems them. Whoever this servant was, they had to be an individual or a small group of people from within Israel.
Now, it’s easy to use hindsight and link Jesus with the servant songs. It would have been a lot harder to join the dots at the time. Especially with all the other prophecies about a king who would rule in justice and peace.
The point I want to make here is that Jesus did not fit people’s expectations. Not in his resurrection, not in his death, not in his life.
And as we shall see, not in his birth either.
Invitation to pray
We each pray in our own way; some of the best advice I had was ‘Pray as you can, not as you can’t.’ So I offer an invitation to pray – not an instruction.
Thank God for not judging by appearances or social expectations. Ask God to help you do the same. Commit to him the ways in which you have felt rejected without cause and ask him to fill you with your peace.
If you have any questions or feedback about this series, please feel free to contact me. I do my best, but can make mistakes, and my theology is always under construction.
All posts in the series can be found via the tag Xmas2020.