The Gospel of today raises the issue of causing scandal and it does so in the strongest possible terms. The more literal translation of ‘anyone who is an obstacle to one of these little ones’ would be, ‘Anyone who causes scandal to a child would be better thrown into the sea with a great millstone round his neck.’ It’s difficult to imagine a denunciation in more graphic terms. There is a film that many of you will have seen called ‘Walk the Line’. It’s the story of a child that was scandalised and it’s the true life story of the singer Johnny Cash.
There were two in his family, Johnny and his elder brother. He was the more sensitive type who took after his mother with her love of music and songs. His older brother was more like the father who was a hardworking, hard drinking, emotionally unavailable kind of man. As you know Johnny was quite a tortured soul who lived a troubled life with drink and drugs and for all his enormous popularity and wealth never could find real peace of mind.
It would appear from the story that his father resented him from the start, perhaps because of his closeness with his mother. It’s not unusual for a man to resent his son if he sees that child getting the closeness from his mother that he himself was deprived of when he was that age. One day the two boys were left cutting timber with a large circular saw. The job of the elder brother was to feed in the timber and if it got stuck Johnny was to press the red stop button to prevent the timber from flying backwards. In fact it was a strictly adult only job, and far too dangerous for children, but the father was happy that the children do the work while he was off drinking. One lovely evening little Johnny got fed up looking at a red button and he wanted to go fishing so the older said go ahead and he would follow later when the job was complete. While Johnny was happily sitting by the riverbank disaster struck. The saw jammed and a piece of timber flew back and hit the brother in the chest, piercing his heart, and mortally wounding him.
In the traumatic days that followed things were said and done that took more than a lifetime to undo. The father was unable to take responsibility for the fact that he had left his children doing such dangerous work and took all his anger out on Johnny blaming him for being the cause of his brother’s death. Then to add insult to injury, in a fit of temper, he said the most scandalous thing he could possibly have said, ‘When God took my son he took the wrong one’. This rejection by his father, at such a profound level, Johnny carried like a gaping wound for the rest of his life and whenever he encountered rejection it was like a knife being turned inside that wound. From being blamed for his brother’s death he saw himself as a condemned man and found great affinity with the prisoners in San Quentin Jail. It was the recording made live there that became one of the best selling albums of all time.
He was always known as the ‘Man in Black’ and whenever he was asked why he wore black he used to reply, ‘You never know I might be going to a funeral.’ At a deep level he was always at a funeral, his whole life was lived against the backdrop of his brother’s death, the responsibility of which had been cast upon him. His music career may have been unbelievably successful but he also lived the tragedy of a scandalized life. Johnny’s story is typical of so many of us for whom a word or rebuke made in childhood was like a poisoned arrow that sunk deep into our hearts that continues to release its poison throughout our entire lives.
One way that children get deeply hurt is when they get caught up in the fallout when the relationship breaks down between their parents. One teacher was telling me recently that in her class of twenty-two there were fifteen kids from families that had broken down or one-parent families. Is it not a scandal that in situations of separation children so often become weapons used by broken-hearted people who have nothing left that the other wants except a visit from a child. Sadly this visit is withheld because the warring parties are interested in causing as much pain to their now-estranged lovers as they have felt themselves. Another aspect of this is where the estranged partner dumps his or her anger on the children and tries to poison them against their mum or dad. This is scandal of the first order because no matter how bad the parent may be the child needs to believe that the parent is okay in order to feel that they are okay. What they don’t realize is that whenever a weapon is fired the ammunition doesn’t just destroy its target; the ammunition itself gets destroyed too. In so many cases the relationship cannot be saved, and there may be very little left to salvage from it, but at least the children deserved to be saved. They do not deserve to become the casualties of their parent’s war. The transient pain of the parents during a time of separation can so easily become the life-long pain of the children who get caught up in the crossfire. Those with children are richly blessed but with blessing comes responsibility, especially the responsibility to ensure that they don’t grow up scandalized, in other words that they don’t have to carry the burden of unnecessary hurt that can affect them for the course of their lives.