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Monkey See, Monkey Do

April 23, 2005

Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around your neck than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.” (Luke 17:1-3)

Charlie the Chimp has a thing for Camels.

No, not those kinds of camels. Charlie, who lives  chimp smokeat the Bloemfontein Zoo in South Africa, likes to smoke. He apparently picked up the trick from zoo visitors who think it's funny to see him smoke and toss him cigarettes. But now Charlie seems to have developed a real habit. Zoo workers, for obvious reasons, discourage Charlie from smoking and take his ciggies away if they catch him, but Charlie is pretty smart (he is a chimpanzee, after all). When zoo workers are around, Charlie “acts like a naughty schoolboy” and hides his smokes. The zoo is now asking visitors to stop giving cigarettes to Charlie.

They want the chimp to stop. Cold turkey. (Sorry.)

Really, a person's got to be pretty hard up for entertainment to resort to enticing a chimp to smoke. Now, I know that Charlie didn't have to pick up any of those cigarettes that people threw at him. He didn't have to follow their example and take the first puff. But is it really so surprising that he would? He's just a chimp, after all. It's his health that's compromised by it, that's the sad part. But wouldn't you say that the folks who gave Charlie the cigarettes in the first place are pretty culpable in his slide into nicotine addiction?

Shameful thing to do to an animal. You know what's worse, though? We human beings do the same kind of thing to each other, too. To our friends. Our spouses. Even to our families, our children. I know men who got their first look at pornography when as young teenagers they stumbled onto their fathers' collections. I know women who seem to have picked up hypercriticism and fault-finding from their moms. You've heard young children use words that young children shouldn't know and could have learned only from parents or older siblings, haven't you? And what teacher hasn't seen a child lash out in a temper tantrum that could have only been brought from home?

Have you ever noticed how grumbling, complaining, and gossip seem to be contagious? How many addicts have been introduced to their substance of choice by a friend? How many affairs begin because of the “innocent” spouse's aloofness? And then there are the attitudes we pass on. The behaviors and pathologies that so many develop just to cope with the behaviors and pathologies of the people they care about. Show me a young man or woman with no self-esteem, and I'll show you a home in which they didn't feel valued. Show me a man always making excuses for his wife, and I'll show you a wife who can't take responsibility for her bad choices.

People are culpable for their own sins, certainly. We are much more than chimps. But we are connected. And if I, intentionally or unintentionally, throw some sort of obstacle in your path, then I am responsible if you trip and fall over it. If through your influence I wander down the wrong path and get involved in the wrong things, then you are in some way liable.

Jesus uses strong language to remind us that our influence on others is a real and awesome thing. It's better to play chicken with a freight train, to try to catch a bullet in your teeth, to go diving carrying your bowling ball than to forget that your influence matters and lead someone astray. Jesus isn't saying that if you've ever influenced someone to sin you're better off dead. His goal is to make us think twice about letting it happen again. “Watch yourselves.”

So let's take that advice. Let's watch ourselves. Let's be sure to use our influence wisely and to pray that in all our relations with others the Holy Spirit will call the shots and lead the way. What a difference we could make in the world around us, what a testimony for the gospel it would be, if we believers took seriously the notion that in every one of our relationships is opportunity after opportunity to lead someone closer to God or farther from him! “Be careful then, how you live,” cautioned Paul; “not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity.” (Ephesians 5:15-16) Let's commit ourselves to doing exactly that.

And then to going a little farther. As Jesus says, things that cause people to stumble are bound to come. It's a sure bet. So let's keep our eyes open for those who are wandering blindly toward a fall, or those who have already tripped and are trying to get back up. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do for others what the workers at Bloemfontein Zoo are doing for Charlie. We can do for them what God has done for us through Jesus. We can help clear away the stumbling blocks that others have laid in their paths.

I know, you doubt you have that kind of influence. That's exactly the point; we often don't realize who is watching and so don't think enough about what they're learning. You have almost assuredly underestimated the depth and breadth of the influence you have.

But no longer, right? Enter tomorrow or today with a different perspective, a new consciousness that everything you do affects someone else. We are all connected, every one of us. Nothing, not even the most secret things, are done in a vacuum. They always influence someone else, somewhere else. You may not even know this side of heaven.

Monkey see, monkey do. It's true for people, too.

So watch yourself.


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