Back when I worked in New York, my preferred places for meals or for a little relaxation were the neighborhood Irish bars or Jewish delis. The place we went to get shepherd’s pie for lunch was always packed with electricians, most of whom eyed guys in suits like me with a bit of suspicion. My favorite restaurant in Manhattan was a Jewish place in a basement that had no sign. But on occasion, I would find myself waiting in line outside of whatever club was all the rage in that moment, mostly to placate my friends who just had to go there. These places always seemed have L names, like Lava Lounge and Lit Lounge, and most of the reason anyone wanted to go to these places was their exclusivity. Not just anyone could get in, and so if the velvet ropes parted for you when you got to the door, somehow you were validated as part of the chosen.
People like to feel like they belong – certainly I do. I’m a fireman, which makes me part of one of the most tribalistic groups in the world. I’m an Episcopalian – again, rather tribalistic. But while it’s nice to be a part of an exclusive tribe, one must be conscious of just what that exclusivity means.
In today’s Gospel, we get “the episode of the “strange exorcist” in Mark. John, one of the three in an inner circle within the Twelve (an insider among insiders) is disturbed when they discover someone driving out demons in Jesus’ name even though he does not “follow” the Twelve…Jesus responds with an inclusive impulse, “Do not prevent him. … Whoever is not against us is for us.””
Once again, Jesus flips the usual script. We’re more likely to hear the opposite, Whoever isn’t for us is against us, us against the world, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But here we see that Jesus wasn’t aiming at exclusivity, His little tribe of twelve against the world.
And then Jesus did another curious thing: the disciples had exclusion on their minds, and so Jesus taught them what to exclude. Hands, feet, and eyes are on that menu. That’s a bit of a stark image, and so Jesus must have been trying to drive home His point: if we want to exclude something, exclude the things that cause you to sin.
So what does this look like in real life? Is Jesus really telling us to cut off limbs and pluck out our eyes if they cause us to sin? The general consensus is no, at least to the literal interpretation, but an absolute yes to the more nuanced way of looking at it. Here’s the principle of the thing: “be decisive, even radical, in your choices, when it comes to your journey toward the reign of God. For example, in the context of the Christian covenant, commitment to a spouse means you need to cut off any other (romantic) relationship. If alcohol is addictive for you, drop it entirely. If the television threatens to vitiate normal family communication, put it out of the living room. If the job compromises your conscience, and the boss will not hear of any changes of policy, maybe you need to quit.”
Jesus is telling us that no matter how painful our efforts might be in avoiding sin, no matter how radical the steps might have to be in our path of discipleship, that pain is nothing compared to the anguish sin causes in our lives.
As is all too evident in the news, our sins catch up with us, drag us down, and worse yet, they destroy the people around us. Don’t be that guy, Jesus tells us, and even more, don’t be the guy who’s sins cause others to sin. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Better for him. Apparently God doesn’t like it when we corrupt the people around us.
So, are you nervous yet? Are you doing a silent inventory of all the times you would have been better off without a hand or with a millstone around your neck? Good – that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Being aware of ourselves and the ways in which we have sinned against God and each other allow us to ask forgiveness for those offenses. God does and will forgive you; He will confirm and strengthen you with His Holy Spirit, and that same Spirit will guide you in correcting course, in becoming a person whom sin has no hold upon. The type of person who gets past the velvet ropes to the best party imaginable; the type of person who wants to invite everyone along.
 Dennis Hamm, SJ: http://liturgy.slu.edu/26OrdB093018/theword_hamm.html