By Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos
A lot has been said lately about scandals and, yes, about ecclesiastical scandals—in essence, about scandals which arise from clerics who should have been examples to the faithful.
“Scandal” is a snare that is set to capture a beast or the destruction of the enemy. God said to the Jews: the idolatrous nations are “a snare and a trap for you” (Joshua 23:13). Christ said to the Apostle Peter – who tried to dissuade Him from taking the course of the Passion and death on the Cross—“Get thee behind Me Satan: thou art an offence (scandal) unto Me, for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (Matt. 16:23). In a broader sense, the word “scandalizer” indicates the one who devises snares, who tempts another. There is also a word, “conniver,” which denotes that man who plots snares in order to visit others with evils.
Scandal is given to fallen society exactly because man is found in the circumstances of the Fall, governed by passions; but also in order to compete, to hold on to the will of God and proceed toward perfection without ever arriving at perfection. Because of this, Christ said to the Jews of His time, “it is necessary that scandals come” (Matt. 18:7): because in this manner the ones being tested are proven. At the same time, it is emphasized “but woe to the man by whom the scandals come” (Matt. 18:7).
There is, however, a parameter that must be accented in this provision. It applies to the scandalized, who yield to the temptations arising from scandals—the ones who lose their faith and leave the Church because they have been scandalized by various happenings which occur in society, but also in the bosom of the Church. If the scandalizers have a responsibility before God and will give a fearful account before God on the Day of Judgment, the scandalized also have a shared responsibility.
There are two basic reasons. The first reason is that the scandalized show their spiritual weakness to resist temptations and the difficulties of life. Just as the biological organism of man draws upon antibodies and a strong immune system to ward off every toxin, just so the spiritual man ought to have a strong immune system in order to ward off every tempting circumstance. And just as those who do not have a strong immune system become ill, so also, the ones who do not have a strong spiritual immune system are easily scandalized and in this way show they do not have a sound organism.
Fallen men can even be scandalized from spiritually healthy circumstances and this means that they do not possess the criterion of Truth. The Pharisees were scandalized by the Presence and Words of Christ – without Christ’s being responsible, as He simply revealed the Truth: “the Pharisees were scandalized hearing the Word” (Matt. 15:12).
Christ, knowing that there would be many scandalized by His Person, said: “Blessed is the one who is not scandalized by Me” (Matt. 11:6). A little before His Passion, Christ said to His disciples: “You will all be scandalized because of Me” (Matt. 26:31). Also, with His last teaching, before He was given over to the martyrdom of His Passion, He said to His disciples: “These things I spoke to you in order that you not be scandalized” (Jn. 16:1). Not only was Christ a scandal to the spiritually sick, but the Cross of Christ is, according to the testimony of the Apostle Paul, in this present age, a scandal to the Jews: “We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a scandal” (1Cor. 1:23).
It follows that the ones who have small and imperfect faith are scandalized. Temptations result in scandals to those who do not have a great knowledge of God. Moreover, for those who do not draw upon the criterion of Truth, Christ Himself, can be a scandal – His revealed Word, the Truth, the Kingdom of Heaven—which they do not harmonize with the world view that they have.
The second reason which reveals the responsibility which those who are scandalized have is that in some way those who are in these circumstances have a psychological need to be scandalized. This is said from the vantage point that those who fall into this category live a life outside of the physical life – as Adam lived before the Fall – and a life outside of revealed Truth, which Christ gave to the world and is safeguarded in the Church.
After the fall of Adam, God sent to mankind the saints and the prophets; He gave His Law so that people might have various criteria of the Truth and flee from delusion. Finally, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was incarnate and revealed the whole Truth – He made the Church His Body and, because of this, people can not only find the Truth, but can live it in their existence.
However, when a person lives outside this revealed Word, that person is following the voice of conscience for the purpose of resisting it, in order to protest: because the fallen man does not want to come into conflict with the desires of the old man. Because of this, he tries to find many opportunities and motives to suppress the voice of his protesting conscience, so as to go on with being found in the mindset and situation of the passions.
Exactly for this reason, scandals are of service to such a one who wishes to be scandalized. With this conception, the passionate man inclines toward the limitations and search for scandals; he delights in these in order to quiet his conscience and avoid following the narrow and ascending path of virtue. He has the following thought: “If there exist other Christians, let alone clerics and even bishops who transgress the many and varied boundaries of the Law of God, then I have an excuse to live the same way.”
The two reasons which we presented show that the scandalized are spiritually ill. It is evident from this fact that the Saints are not scandalized by anything that they see in society. Not only are they not scandalized, but they confront the evidence and temptations with unshakable faith and invincible courage. The Grace of God strengthens and empowers them. They are influenced by the words of the Apostle Paul: “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).
Exactly for this reason, Christ spoke of the need to cut off the causes of scandal, which are not so much found outside a person, but within. Christ said: “Everyone who looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart,” and continuing, He said: “If thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast if from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” (Matt. 5:29). According to St. Chrysostom, when Christ speaks of the right eye, He does not mean a member of one’s body, but “concerning the things that are near to us”. So a man must not make excuses because another creates problems for him, but the same must proceed with all his might to disengage from the scandal that is producing temptation. This means that he has a personal responsibility to do so.
All the above is not written in order to forget or make excuses for the scandalizers. These have a huge responsibility for the problems they create. Rather, it is to place a limit on the truth [of the scandal], so that no one will make excuses for the fact that he or she did not live the life that Christ revealed to us as a result of existing scandals. Scandals, among other things, reveal the infirmities of the scandalized. The scandalized have a responsibility for allowing themselves to be scandalized by whatever scandalizes them. And they, along with the scandalizers, will give a reckoning to God at the Second Coming of Christ.
(translated from Greek by Archpriest Lawrence Russell, with apologies of any inaccuracies or lack of those subtleties contained in the original Greek)
hat tip: Fr Anthony Karbo (Holy Theophany Orthodox Church ~ Colorado Springs)