Pope Leo, the Skandalon and the Satanic Cross

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Readings for Monday of Week of Proper 27 (HWHM)

Titus 1:1-9

Psalm 24:1-6

Luke 17:1-6

This homily was preached by Daniel at All Saints Chapel at Church Divinity School of the Pacific on Monday November 10, 2014. 

The word skandalon and its verb form skandalizo appear 44 times in the New Testament, which compels many commentators to assert its importance in Jesus’ teachings and in New Testament theology. It comes from the root skadzo, which means “I limp” and generally refers to something that causes one to trip or stagger: a stumbling block. The word shows up in our language today as “scandal,” which we often associate with something salacious and shocking (like a sex scandal), but the word skandalon holds much more meaning than that, which we can begin to deduce from the Gospel reading this morning: “Occasions for skandalon are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to be scandalized.”

A growing number of theologians influenced by the work of anthropologist René Girard have attempted to unpack the theological meaning of skandalon. They argue that the New Testament meaning of skandalon is deeply connected to the meaning of another word: Satan. Both Satan and skandalon, they say, refer to envy that escalates into violence. Satan is the personification of this envy-turned-violent while skandalon provides an image of someone ensnared by this Satan: the image of someone stumbling and then limping. So Satan is the one who scandalizes and we are on the side of Satan when we scandalize young people (these little ones) by pushing them into a world of envy and competition at the expense of others.

I just spent the last day and a half with young people at St. Dorothy’s Rest. They were wonderful and energetic and clearly vulnerable to the snares of envy, vulnerable to the trap of fighting for the center of attention, fighting for popularity at the expense of others. All of the forces and voices in our culture that encourage young people to hurt others and put others down in order to be popular (and these voices are legion!) should be thrown into the sea with a millstone wrapped around their neck! They are on the side of Satan.

Yet Jesus does not urge us to literally start violently drowning people in the sea. Instead, he urges us to forgive. He urges us to forgive as victims of the satanic skandalon. In this way, the cross is the ultimate scandal and, although it may sound jarring at first, the cross is satanic! The cross is satanic because it is the symbol of violence towards innocence at the hands of rivals driven by envy. The victim of this envy-driven violence does not reciprocate the hate and thus perpetuate the mechanisms of scapegoating and collective murder. Instead, the victim forgives. The resurrection of Christ is the embodiment of this forgiveness. Through the resurrection, Christ reveals and rebukes the forces of envy and violence that scandalize us and cause us to scandalize others and then forgives the hell out of us.

By this forgiveness, we are uprooted from the soil of envy and rivalry and planted in the sea of abundance and self-giving love. We learn to improve our limp so that we are no longer scandalized. And we develop a particular love for the victims of violence, a love for the marginalized, a love for the stranger. One of the qualifying characteristics for a bishop, according to the Epistle to Titus, is philoxenos, which literally means “love for the stranger.” It is basically the opposite of xenophobia, which is a manifestation of the skandalon.

Pope Leo the Great, whose feast day is today, embodied philoxenos by standing up for the potential victims of violence in Rome by confronting the satanic forces that were running rampant in fifth-century Rome: the invading armies of Attila the Hun, the Vandals, the Visigoths as well as the scandalous rivalries that existed between the bishops of the church. His concern was for the weak and the vulnerable. “No one,” Pope Leo preached, “no matter how weak, is denied a share in the victory of the cross.”

The cross, which is satanic, is also victorious over satan precisely because it reveals to us that we are on the side of satan and scandal whenever we let our envy turn us against the weak and vulnerable. The cross is victorious over satan because it reveals to us that Christ is always on the side of the victim. Christ is always on the side of the victim so that “no one, no matter how weak, is denied a share in the victory of the cross.”

Those little ones (and the young people of this diocese and church), who are vulnerable to scandal and the violent consequences of scandal, are not denied a share in the victory of the cross. The cross calls us to stand up for them against the satanic forces of envy and violence, to uproot them from rivalry and plant them in the sea of God’s infinite love and forgiveness, which we can all access in overwhelming abundance with a mere mustard seed of faith.

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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