In this week’s Gospel passages, Jesus encounters Pharisees, very smart, learned men who put lots of emphasis on religious rituals, rules, and regulations. Because of their intellect and devotedness, some were high priests, members of the Jewish magisterium and Sanhedrin, and those who wanted Jesus silenced and, ultimately, killed. Though knowledgeable (a human trait), they lacked wisdom (a divine gift), and, though pious, they did not transform their faith to make life better for others. Jesus referred to them as blind guides, hypocrites, and a brood of vipers. Though they knew a lot about God, scripture, and religion, they did not know God, nor did they recognize Him when He stood in their midst. From their attacks, Jesus did not back down. You might say, He was a glutton for punishment.
Through some of my writings, homilies, and presentations, I have ruffled some feathers by commenting on ecclesial issues like clericalism, national news topics like refusing communion to President Biden, and political mindsets like hatred of former-President Trump. My attempt is to present the attitude of Christ which, by accounts, is to challenge clerical or pharisaical ways, welcome imperfect people to the table of fellowship, and forgive enemies by showing mercy to those who sin—or those we simply don’t like. After all, we are all sinners. Though Jesus said to those He healed, “Go and sin no more,” He realizes our flawed nature. He infuses our human proclivity of sin and our desire to do better with a divine grace to imitate Him, or as the thirteenth century prayer made famous by the rock opera Godspell states: “see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly.”
Having received some rather vicious insults, someone said to me: “People on the extremes, ten percent on either side, are unreasonable, illogical, and cruel. Don’t engage them unless you’re really a glutton for punishment.” I recall a former bishop of our Kansas City-Saint Joseph Diocese, Raymond Boland, who was viewed by some as a middle of the road centrist; he joked that if you stand in the middle of the road, you’re likely to get hit by those coming from either direction. I guess that’s where I stand, too, though I get accused by some of being on the right and others as being left. Perhaps, I am naïve in thinking that most people will dialogue about important matters rather than remain entrenched in a particular way of thinking. At the turn of the century, the same bishop warned that polarization may be the greatest destructive force we will face, what he prophetically described then as a dirty twelve-letter word.
The former Jesuit superior, Pedro Arrupe, was criticized for his tremendous optimism; even when one of his most heartfelt decisions was reversed by the Vatican, he reiterated his conviction that God can and will do what is best. I desire a dose of his optimism, even if it makes me seem naive. I hold onto a hope that those on opposite sides can come together in open, honest, and loving dialogue; and I’d like to keep working at it, even if it means taking some hits, even if it means that I’m a glutton for punishment.