The Inner Ring

Recently there was a sketch on Saturday Night Live featuring the character of an incredibly self-important secretary for some minor star (the sort of star who hosts low-rating game shows). The secretary is utterly oblivious to his client’s puny standing in the grand scheme of things and instead, basking in the reflected two-watt glory of his boss, treats every visitor to the office with the utmost snobbery and officiousness. Each person asking to see the star is treated with withering haughtiness and asked: “And you are….?” As the day wears on, half a dozen fabulously famous people stop by the office (including, at last, Jesus Christ) and all are greeted with the same belittling arrogance: “And you are…..?”

C.S. Lewis writes somewhere that one of the greatest temptations we face is the desire to belong to the “Inner Ring.” The Inner Ring is that select, special and ever-so-important group that has the inside track, that knows what’s going on, that has the ear of the Big Guy (whether the Big Guy is Mom, or the School Bully, or the Boss, or the Cool Guy on Campus or–worst of all–God). Most of us don’t want to be Numero Uno (too much responsibility) but we very much want to be Numero Uno’s Trusted Confidante and Best Buddy. That’s why for every King, Queen, President or Rock Star there are zillions of courtiers, hangers-on and toadies. Many people want to bask in the reflected glory of another and know the sweet smugness that I, but (too bad!) not you, am special, special, special.

The surest proof that this spirit is at work in the way we behave when someone not from the Inner Ring horns in on “our” turf and threatens our relationship with the Big Guy. This is precisely what we see in both the Old Testament and New Testament. In Numbers, for instance, we find that Moses calls a solemn assembly of Israel’s elders and God visits them with his Spirit so that they fall into an ecstasy and begin to prophesy. More than this, God sovereignly chooses to bless two of Israel’s elders with a special prophetic gift, even though they are not part of the solemn assembly.

Result: Joshua son of Nun gets very upset and demands that Moses put a stop to it. Why? A clue is given by the sacred writer, Joshua had “from his youth been Moses’ aide” (Numbers 11:28). In other words, he is jealous. Not jealous for himself precisely. He doesn’t want the prophetic gift himself. But he is very jealous for Moses (v. 29). If everybody starts prophesying, then Moses stops being special. And if Moses stops being special, there’s no reflected glory for Joshua.

But Moses is not interested in getting glory. He is interested in giving it to God. Rather than worrying about his reputation, he tells Joshua, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”

This is the same lesson the apostles have to learn thirteen centuries later. For they too have turf to guard and they feel it menaced when somebody who is “not one of us” seems to be horning in. John (who elsewhere in the gospels makes a major grab for Right Hand Man status [Mark 10:35-37]) protests that some guy who does not follow the apostles is driving out demons in Jesus’ name (Mark 9:38). Jesus’ reply is similar to Moses: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (v. 39). Where John sees a threat to his prestige as a Right Hand Man, Jesus sees a heart open to the will of his Father, and therefore one who is “brother and sister and mother” to him, whether that one knows the apostles’ names or not (Mark 3:35).

This is important for us as Catholics to remember, lest we succumb to spiritual pride and forget that all we have, we have by grace, and not because we are members of an Inner Ring. For though we are rightly bound by the apostolic authority of the Church Christ founded, we must remember that God is not bound. He is sovereign and can communicate grace to those who are, as far as we can see, not in contact with its sacraments or liturgy. As an old saying tells us: We know where the Church is; we do not know where it is not.

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