The disciples of Jesus are going to face temptations. In fact, in Matthew 18:7 he says that it is necessary for temptations to come. The word translated “temptation” in the ESV (σκάνδαλον) is the same as “cause to sin” in 18:6. The NIV 2011 renders the phrase “the things that cause people to stumble” and the NRSV has “Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks.”
In Matthew 18:1-9 the noun σκάνδαλον refers to putting something in the way of another person to cause them to stumble. Leviticus 19:14 is a command not to place a stumbling block (מִכְשׁוֹל, LXX σκάνδαλον) in front of the blind causing them to trip. By way of illustration, a football player to throws himself at the feet of another player to cause him to trip. Causing someone to sin may not be as intentional as this, but the result is the same, a person is led into some sin by some circumstance in this world.
In Matthew 13 the same word is used in the Parable of the Sower. The seed falling on the rocky ground has no roots so it withers up when persecution comes. This is the person who hears the gospel and seems to accept it, but something happens which causes them to fall away before they have produced fruit. Their faith is “tripped up” by trouble and temptation in this world. Does this imply the person who “trips up” another is in danger of damnation? The true disciple of Jesus is careful how they live their lives so that they do not cause another to sin. As Craig Blomberg said, “a life-style characterized by causing others to sin is incompatible with true discipleship” (Matthew, 274).
Jesus says the origin of this kind of temptation is “the world” not the disciple of Jesus. The disciple of Jesus will encounter all sorts of things in the world which may cause them to stumble. The neuter plural σκάνδαλα can be translated “things that cause stumbling.” What are “these things” Jesus has in mind? Certainly these could include the typical sins on offer in any culture, but the phrase as Jesus uses it may allude to a particular passage in the Old Testament.
In Ezekiel 14 the elders of Jerusalem have put “stumbling blocks in front of the people” by worshiping idols. The possible intertext is mentioned by Keener (Matthew, 449). I have developed it beyond what Keener does in his commentary, even if the LXX does not use σκάνδαλον. The Hebrew word translated as “stumbling block” (מִכְשׁוֹל) is a noun built from the verb כשׁל, to reel, stagger or stumble, but it is often used to describe the result of bad leaders. In Malachi 2:8, for example, the prophet rebukes bad priests who have “have caused many to stumble by your instruction.”
Similarly, in the context of Ezekiel 14, it is the religious aristocracy in charge of the Temple who are accused of consulting idols rather than God. As a result the Lord will “set his face against them” and no longer guide them at all. He will cut off the one who is leading the people astray “from the midst of my people.” If Jesus has a text like Ezekiel 14 in mind, then he may have in mind leaders who cause people under their leadership to sin. Just as the priests in Ezekiel 14 were leading God’s people into the extreme offense of idolatry, so too it is possible some leaders in Matthew’s community were leading their congregations into behaviors or beliefs which prevent them from actually hearing the Gospel.
Like a Hebrew prophet, Jesus pronounces “woe” on those who cause a little one to stumble. “Woe” expresses anguish or distress, like the old English use of the word “Alas!” It appears in Hebrew as הוֹי or אוֹי and is used in the prophets frequently in the context of judgment. The one who causes others to sin face serious judgment (looking ahead to the hand or foot which causes one to sin).
It is easy enough to draw the analogy to later theological aberrations which understood Jesus in a way which could prevent someone from a full understanding of the Gospel, or a later behavioral aberration which is offensive to God. In a modern context. It is very easy point out examples of pastors and teachers who have been so utterly hypocritical that their congregations may never hear the simple Gospel of Jesus. All of these can be a temptation which causes the little ones to sin.
In the passage, therefore, Jesus warns his disciples they are responsible for the flocks assigned to them and they will be held responsible for their well-being.