One of the hardest things to overcome in human nature is the tendency to categorize people between those who are "in" and those who are "out." We all want to be accepted by our own inner circle of family and friends, and exclusion by contemporaries can be painful and even damaging. People derive a sense of self worth and a way of exerting power over others by belonging to a group that, in their own eyes, seems to be better than others. To maintain acceptance we may even keep silent when we should object to unkind behavior or conversation by our peers.
The need to belong to the inner circles can be found in all age groups, cultures, religions, nationalities, races and in both genders. It can be the source of peer-pressure, bullying, political partisanship and polarization. But it can also lead to the self-inflicted wound of blinding oneself to the larger picture, the broader outlook, the more hopeful vision.
This "inner circle" mentality has never been more prominent: Words of accusation and condemnation; false claims; hyperbole and outright lies dominate our political scene. Words of impossible promises and drastic actions, oversimplifications, and polarization seem to define the global society - and indeed even our church.
We can get so carried away with all of this that we fail to pay attention to what really matters – to where we are going and how we are getting there. Sometimes, it is nearly impossible to discern the right way, the good and righteous way, the compassionate, just and peaceful way when we are inundated with all these words, with all this talk.
The first reading and the Gospel should make all of us a little bit uncomfortable, or at the very least, cause us to examine our own attitudes. We certainly know the benefits of belonging to a strong faith community. No matter how involved we are in our own local parish community, you and I are very much invested in our church; we are its emissaries and visible representatives to the world.
However, we need to constantly remind ourselves that the Spirit is not limited to one church or religious community in achieving God's purposes. God reveals His presence among all peoples of the world. He guides, challenges and heals; He reconciles enemies, feeds the hungry, and He inspires people - and He does this within or without the institutional church; "in the gathering" of the elders or outside.
Today's Gospel is part of a larger narrative in which Jesus teaches his little band of followers just what "discipleship" really means. Over the next few weeks, we will see them stumble their way along the road to Jerusalem. From Peter on down, they seem to miss the point, argue over who will attain the highest position and try to convince Jesus to do things the easy way, rather than the way God has chosen for him.
As followers of Christ, we are all in a “process of becoming.” Even though we may have already given our commitment to follow Christ, there are times in our lives when we are asked to make choices that put our discipleship on the line. Some options require us to reject what seems like the attractive or easier ways of acting. These choices may force us to think "outside the box," to be more forgiving, more compassionate, more reconciling, more open. These choices may put us at odds with family, friends or our surrounding culture; but we know we must choose in ways that echo the good news that we believe.
For the true disciple, there is no such thing as the "inner circle" - there is no conservative or liberal, no traditionalist or progressive, no orthodox or "cafeteria catholic." The meaning of the word "catholic" points to something or someone universal, all encompassing, all-embracing. If we truly believe what we profess week after week, then our motto as "disciples" should echo the words of Moses in our first reading: "Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!"
Wouldn't that be wonderful indeed.