“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!
“If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.” — Matthew 18:6-9.
Children are susceptible to danger and can stumble, even the greatest of them. Jesus warns those who cause these little ones – believers – to sin. The idea is that by rejecting the little ones, by not welcoming them, some will cause them to stumble in their discipleship. It may lead to serious sin; but it immediately concerns their following Jesus. Rejecting them is rejecting Jesus (see 10:40-42; 25:31-46).
Because the crime is so great, that is, because they not only reject Jesus but seek to cause the little ones, believers, to sin and turn away from Christ, the rebuke is strong. It would be better for them to be drowned in the sea before doing this, than to commit these crimes. There is some advantage for a premature death of the wicked. Jesus referred to the heavy millstone, the stone pulled by animals, to make the point forceful; and the description of eternal punishment is likewise severe. The little ones, the disciples of Jesus, are under his care; and whatever people do to them, they are really doing to Jesus. This also fits the imagery of a family.
Then Jesus announces a woe to the world, especially to those who would do so wickedly. This is a proclamation of judgment, not an expression of sympathy. And it focuses on the world and the stumbling blocks. The stumbling blocks (offenses) are there, but woe to those through whom they come. By this teaching believers know that there will be opposition and occasions for stumbling–Jesus said they will be present [indicating it is a part of God’s (permissive) will for the victory of faith]. But Jesus’ words also assure that in the end justice will triumph.
In verses 8 and 9 Jesus instructs the disciples to get rid of things that cause them to sin. The language here is extravagant. But the point is that disciples also could become aggressors and not just victims: “If your hand or foot…” Failure to deal radically with sin in their own life, especially sin that harms other believers, betrays their loyalty to the world. It is not enough for Christians to confess such sins and then go their normal way. No, they must determine how to rid themselves of the opportunity and the tendency for such sin.
How do we know that Jesus is speaking figuratively? Some have taken them literally and cut off hands and maimed themselves to root out sin. But the root of sin is the heart/mind. We know Jesus did not mean to literally cut off the hand/feet or pluck out the eye, so that one could enter the kingdom maimed. This is the language of hyperbole. Get rid of the occasion for sin, especially if that sin is destroying the little ones.
So in this section Jesus builds on the teachings of humility introduced before, but he does it now with proverb-like sayings, i.e., what is better and what is worse, to teach what people should do. The teaching is not designed to literally throw wicked people into the sea or cut off hands and feet that offend; rather, it is designed to say that people should not sin against others, especially the believers, and cause them to sin.