Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Jesus is an extremist. Unfortunately, our modern civilized ears hear a statement like that and immediately become offended, though we can’t quite name the reason for offense. Extremism conjures images of violence inspired by hatred. But in the person of Jesus Christ, we find an extremist of an entirely different kind. Jesus not only exhorts His followers to an extreme life of holiness, piety, virtue, mercy and justice, but also demonstrates by His own Passion on the Cross the full meaning of the extremism of His teachings.
There are no half measures with Jesus Christ. What He says in the Gospel today, He really means. Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, turn the other cheek and so on. These are not easy platitudes! On the contrary, these are radical propositions for living a life entirely different than the world around us, even, it would seem, a life contrary to every natural instinct we possess. This extreme way of living love for God and neighbor leads to the next part of what Jesus teaches. “Stop judging and you will not be judged.” How easily we pull this one line and read it as justification for never calling a sin a sin, or refusing to correct someone for their immoral behavior. But Jesus teaches this in a big context: we can only stop judging if we first love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, if we have first turned the other cheek. If we continue reading the Gospel, we see that Jesus immediately teaches us to forgive and give generously. There is more to being a disciple of Jesus Christ than simply not judging. That particular teaching of our Lord follows from and leads to so much more!
What would happen if we, as individuals, as a parish, as a Church, became extremists according to the image of Jesus Christ? What if I took Jesus at His word and truly sought to live holiness and virtue as Jesus asks? There are no half measures with Jesus, and so there should be no half measures for any of us when it comes to living these virtues in pursuit of holiness! Too often, though, in the life of the Church, we have come to accept half measures. If we reduce everything to “don’t judge” there is no moral force to anything we say or do because the supreme virtue becomes silence about virtue and morality. If we are silent about virtue and morality, moral license creeps in. What then? Moral scandal! Think of the horror of scandal and crime we have seen in the Church since 2002, and highlighted once again in the summer of 2018 and this past week in the laicization of former-Cardinal McCarrick. But if we call it scandal and crime are we violating Jesus’ teaching not to judge? Of course not! I cannot judge the souls of others, but I can say that their behavior and action is wrong, sinful, horrific. Where does this scandal come from? The root of this lies in our collective failure as a Church to heroically live the extremism Jesus calls for! Be an extremist for virtue! Be an extremist for holiness! Be an extremist for love of God and neighbor! If we follow Jesus as He asks, we will uproot every scandal and sin that plagues our Church and our community, and our own lives will be transformed into living testimonies of the love and mercy of God.
Remember this, too: Jesus calls us to an extreme life of love and virtue, this is true. But as I wrote a few weeks ago, perfection is not a prerequisite. The call to this extreme way of living is meant to help us grow in perfection, to be more perfect, more loving, more virtuous, more holy. The reason we follow Jesus Christ as disciples is precisely because we want to live like Him. The reason we need Jesus Christ, especially in the sacraments, is because we live like Him only imperfectly while on earth, but we hope to live in perfect unity with Him forever in Heaven. Jesus is an extremist and He calls us to the same radical life of love and holiness.