Woe to you! You build tombs for the prophets. But your own ancestors killed them! Therefore you are witnesses to and collude with the deeds of your ancestors. They killed them, you build their tombs.
Luke 11: 47-8
As we measure it, it has been a long time since Jesus charged the lawyers and the Pharisees with witnessing to and colluding with the murderous deeds of their ancestors. Yet, despite our hopes and claims that in all that time we have somehow through human evolution attained a new level of consciousness, our experience, personally and globally, fails to bear this out. Unless we ourselves be converted, we collude no less with humankind’s murderous history than did the lawyers and Pharisees whom Jesus addressed.
From Syria, to Yemen, to Congo, to Afghanistan, to the Philippines, to Guantanamo, to the current political climate in the United States, we are reminded on the global level of our inherent and seemingly intractable capacity for hatred and violence. Individual human persons are often nothing but pawns in the struggle for power and possession. Modes of technology that we anticipated would further unite us have but merely further demonstrated our global inequality and evoked a distancing from our suffering brothers and sisters that we have come to refer to as “compassion fatigue.” In truth, the signs overall are that we as a race are not at all different from our forebears of centuries and eons ago.
On the personal side, today’s gospel challenges each of us us an individual to face our own “collusion” with the dark deeds of our ancestors. None of us are able to look retrospectively at our own lives and not come face to face with numerous persons we have failed and hurt. Far too often in life, we failed to honor and respect the uniqueness and dignity of another because of carelessness, insecurity, fear, ignorance, or sheer selfishness. Far more often than we would wish, our consciousness of the well-being of another fell subject to our own lust, greed, anger, sloth, wrath, envy or pride. There is a profound truth to the centrality of repentance, mercy, and forgiveness in our tradition. Without these it would be impossible to live in integrity and honesty. Our own lives would become impossible to bear.
Yet, our need to repent and the reality of our own sinfulness (and even murderousness) are a lot easier to bear than the illusion of sinlessness. “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other people” ( Luke 18: 11). The danger in comfort, wealth, power, and position (either great or small) is that they enable us to build alternate realities. We come to take our external selves, the ones we present to the world, as our true identities. We lose contact with the truth that love, generosity, and self-forgetfulness do not come to us spontaneously. We forget that “the way” for us must be a way of “continual conversion.”
Over the course of your lifetime,
your loving God
will gradually convert you,
if you let this happen.
The 2nd century BCE Roman playwright Terence declared the perennial truth: “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” The “woe” that Jesus directs to the lawyers and Pharisees is not due to their human weakness and even propensity to evil. It is directed to their denial of this reality. The call to conversion and to transformation is one that calls for a lifetime commitment. We bear the life of Christ in us, but to live it requires of us that we die to all in us that is not of that life and that continues throughout life to assert itself in us.
In today’s reading from Ephesians we hear that “Before the world was made, God chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in God’s presence” (Ephesians 1:2). God’s choice of us, however, requires a continual acceptance and ratification of that choice on our part. We do this by acknowledging our sin and repenting every time that we diminish and hurt another and, then, turning back to God, trusting God’s mercy and fidelity. It is by this “continual conversion” that we are formed, with each moment of repentance, into a living witness of God’s mercy and, thus, a more finely tuned instrument of that mercy to others. It is in this way that we learn to forgive, as we have been forgiven.
The fact, however, that cognitive, affective, and moral conversions occur outside of the Christian context suggests that finally Christian conversion is only a matter of content. But the suggestion is tempting only until one realizes that the essential content of Christian conversion is a unique integration of these three conversions in the Gospel of Jesus. Conversion demands a break—not just with this or that, but first of all and most radically with our total orientation, to the neighbor, and, through the neighbor, to God. The point of Jesus’ indirect method of preaching in parables, of course, is precisely this, not to teach a new doctrine, but to turn every doctrine about life and love upside down. In genuine Christian conversion, then, one does not simply learn a new doctrine about life or love (content), but through the life and love of Jesus one begins to understand the paradoxical truth that life is love, that the only truly self-fulfilling life is the life given up—even to death—in loving one’s neighbor; through a relationship with God in Jesus one begins to embrace this truth; and through the following of Jesus one begins to live this truth.
Walter Conn, Christian Conversion, p. 209