Exclusive! Insiders-only deal on a Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 9:38–43, 45, 47–48:

At that time, John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”

One of the most common words in our popular culture is exclusive. It’s so ubiquitous as to have lost its meaning altogether. We get offers for “exclusive” savings when we buy stuff, offers that are shared simultaneously with millions of other consumers. Event invitations come by mail and e-mail with the word “exclusive” attached, when they really mean “notice me.”  News media outlets have “exclusive” interviews with famous people, described as such even when the same person is talking to other outlets about the same topic. (That’s why my informal definition of the use of “exclusive” in that context is “no other reporter was in the room at the time.”)

To put it another way, the word “exclusive” gets overworked in common usage. But why? What does it sell, very literally these days, that appeals to us? Today’s readings gives us some insight into a flaw in fallen human nature and why it matters for salvation.

Let’s start with today’s Gospel, which encompasses multiple lessons from Jesus to his disciples. Last week, we heard from Mark about the disciples’ attempts to rank themselves in importance, an effort which drew a rebuke from Jesus. This week, we learn that the disciples are still struggling with this impulse when it comes to their standing outside of their group. They are offended when someone outside of their group starts preaching and casting out demons in Jesus’ name, even though the man does not belong to their group, and they complain to Jesus about it.

What does Jesus say in response? He reverses the reaction we would expect from normal human nature. A normal human reaction would be that those who have not joined us should be presumed to oppose us, and yet Jesus says the opposite. “For whoever is not against us,” He says, “is for us.”

Similarly, Moses rebukes Joshua in our first reading from Numbers for the same kind of reaction. The Lord had bestowed His spirit, previously shared with Moses alone, on seventy of the elders. Two had not been present at the time, but the will of the Lord worked on the pair separately, and they began teaching in His name even though they were not part of the original seventy. Joshua implores Moses to put an end to it, but Moses replies sharply and humorously, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”

Moses’ answer has several facets to it, but the most important one stands out explicitly. His response to Joshua could be extended to say, Are you jealous for my sake — or for your own? In both instances, the reaction to the gifts of the Lord being given to others is a form of jealousy — not of the gift itself, but of the loss of the “exclusive.” The disciples thought they had the “exclusive” on Christ’s authority and mission; Joshua thought that the seventy elders had the “exclusive” on Moses’ authority from the Lord.

“Exclusive” is a tantalizing concept for humans used to competition and ambition.That’s not just in commercial terms, either, but also in other ways. We form exclusive clubs, we hold exclusive information close to the vest, and we measure our status by how much exclusion we can generate and from which we can benefit. The concept might have held a little more allure until very recently in traditional social standing, but it’s still a powerful impulse, perhaps especially so in adolescence when our underdeveloped senses of personal identity grasp at ranks in social status to deal with crises in self-confidence.

This impulse for exclusion finds its way into every corner of human endeavor, including the church itself. Early Christianity had to deal with the Gnostic heresy, which in part relied on the idea that salvation came through secret knowledge rather than the publicly preached Gospels. Politics and other social interactions are plagued with conspiracy theories that posit wheels within wheels, where only the privileged few have knowledge and can command the world accordingly.

We are obsessed with exclusivity. We desire it, we resent it when we believe it’s being withheld from us, and thus we rank ourselves and others in direct relation to real or perceived exclusivity. This impulse to hoard wealth, information, authority, and social privileges finds its roots in vanity and avarice, but also in despair. We find it impossible to trust in the Lord while we focus on exclusion. And that’s why “exclusive” has become such a ubiquitous and effective sales term — to appeal to all of our sinfulness, including the despair of being left out of the club.

James warned about the consequences for exclusion in his epistle. Although he focused more on material exclusion and the sinful manners in which it took form at the time, the lesson certainly extends to all the ways in which we value exclusion. “Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” can apply just as easily to the people we have shut out of other endeavors in an effort to aggrandize ourselves. This certainly doesn’t implicate only material wealth: “You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous one; he offers you no resistance.”

Jesus, on the other hand, taught inclusion, just as Moses hoped for the entire nation of Israel after the Exodus. None are excluded from salvation, Jesus taught, except those who choose to be excluded from it. Furthermore, since salvation comes through His sacrifice on our behalf, we are all equally unworthy of it — and have equal access to it nonetheless. If salvation is just another treasure to be hoarded, as the disciples appear to think in this reading, then it is permanently out of reach and impossible to own. There are no ranks.

At baptism, we acknowledge this with our equal status as priests, prophets, and kings — through the grace of Christ alone. With that status both equal and irretrievable by any on Earth after baptism, we have no need to seek rank, nor no need to exclude others from it. We do not need to hold this knowledge secret as an exclusive; in fact, that very status calls us, as Moses once hoped, to become a nation of prophets that seeks to add everyone else as equals within it. We are God’s plan for salvation — the priests and prophets sent out to find all of God’s children and bring them back to Him as best we can.

I’d tell you that’s an exclusive, but you can literally read all about it practically everywhere. It’s an offer that won’t expire soon, and you don’t need a secret invitation to access it. Come as you are, and put your trust in the Lord, who wishes most fervently to have all of us join His club in eternity.

The front-page image is a detail from “Communion of the Apostles” by Luca Signorelli c.1512. Currently housed at the Diocesean Museun of Cortana, Tuscany. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.