Have you ever had a conversion experience? Has there ever been a moment in your life where it all changed in a huge way? Think of that old hymn Amazing Grace: “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” Lost and blind in one moment, and then found and able to see in the next.
The two figures in today’s readings—Saul (or Paul) and Zacchaeus—each experienced conversion. Saul was a devout Pharisee and a notorious persecutor of the earliest Christians because they were furthering the work of Jesus and challenging religious norms. But then on a road trip to Damascus, he’s struck down by a blinding light and confronted by the voice of Jesus. Three days later, he is baptized and becomes a transformed ambassador of Jesus’ Good News, ultimately taking his message throughout the western Mediterranean. Some even see Paul as the actual founder of Christianity, the one who planted the seeds for its independent growth throughout the Western world. Zacchaeus, a lesser known figure, was a swindling tax collector from Jericho, intrigued enough by Jesus to climb a tree to get a good look at him when he passed through the city. When Jesus spots him up in the tree, he tells Zacchaeus, “Come down! I’m staying at your place!” Zacchaeus is overwhelmed and announces publicly that he’s now a changed man: he pledges to give away half his possessions to the poor and repay by four times anyone he’s defrauded.
What is conversion exactly? What happens psychologically when one undergoes a massive turnabout in thinking, in attitude, in relationship to others and the world? It’s a great topic of conversation. Many theologians and psychologists have weighed in on the matter. I’m sure you all have your own thoughts about this. I was speaking with someone today who rightly insisted that “conversion” is a dangerous word with a destructive history. It’s a term linked to colonialism and white supremacy, violence and coercion, deception and charlatan TV evangelists. Has the idea of conversion run its course? Should we move on from it? Yes and no. We must acknowledge and repudiate arrogant and racist practices of imposed conversion. But conversion as a basic concept of change and transformation remains important in our day. To that end, let me offer some brief observations from the stories in today’s readings.
The first point is that conversion doesn’t begin within ourselves. We don’t will our own conversion to happen. It comes to us from circumstances outside of our control. In Paul’s case, he was temporarily blinded and knocked off his horse. And his experience of hearing the mysterious but unmistakable voice forced him to consider the life-altering question: “Why are you persecuting me?” Paul was called to conversion—as was Zacchaeus. His curiosity was already aroused, perhaps through encounters with people whose lives Jesus had touched. But when Jesus stopped and spoke to him directly, publicly, announcing to everyone within earshot that he would be staying at Zacchaeus’ house, that marked a turning point. Zacchaeus was called into a new way of being. His life was forever changed.
The second point is that conversion signifies rupture. Conversion is a radical break from the present and ushers in a new future. I recently heard a political activist from India say that not enough of us believe in the future. What he meant was that our view of the future is by and large a continuous present. We wake up on Monday morning, go to work (if we’re able to go to work), return home, go to sleep, and repeat the process throughout the week. We try to enjoy not going to work on Saturdays and Sundays. We do our best to maximize three or four weeks of vacation a year. And this continues year after year, as we prepare for retirement, which is when we’re actually supposed to enjoy life. But does anything really change, not just for ourselves as individuals but for our world? Is there a future—hope that another world is possible—beyond what amounts to a continuous present of coping with a pandemic and environmental degradation, hoping for the triumph of good will and a return to normalcy? Can we imagine a future for our world? Conversion is what thrusts us into that future. It can be upending because it reorients our lives differently, often at odds with the dominant culture of the day. That’s exactly what happened to Paul: he began a totally new course that, as the book of Acts describes it, “turned the world upside down.” Similarly, Zacchaeus abandoned his swindling ways and became an agent of wealth redistribution. That’s what conversion is about. It interrupts the present and introduces radical change. It opens a door to the future.
That leads me to a third point: conversion requires perseverance. That’s not to say that conversion is synonymous with a gradual evolution of consciousness that happens over one’s lifetime. No, conversion can be identified by watershed marker. It’s an event. It might not be instantaneous—for Paul, it took a few days, probably several weeks, for the impact to fully register. But from that point on, he had to persevere in his new life. The consequence of conversion is struggle. Paul faced opposition as a new follower of Jesus, not only from the school of Pharisees to which he belonged but also from the earliest Christians who were justifiably suspicious of him. Zacchaeus didn’t have an easy time either. He had to live up to his words in giving away his possessions to the poor and settling his debts with all those he had taken advantage of.
When we’re called to conversion, we’re not promised a smooth path. In fact, we’re being called to conversion right now—a conversion that challenges us on so many levels. Pope Francis, echoing John Paul II before him, has stated in no uncertain terms that the ecological crisis we face “is a summons to a profound interior conversion.” It’s a call to simplicity, not just in our personal lives but in our collective engagements. It’s a conversion that necessitates a new politics and a rethinking of economy. And it doesn’t come easy. It requires perseverance because the weight of the present—that “continuous present” I mentioned earlier—is suppressing a future of change.
I want to end on an upbeat note. This is Thanksgiving weekend. It’s customary for families to reflect on what they’re thankful for. We can be thankful for those people and things that give us meaning and comfort in a continuous present. But my challenge is to go deeper. What experiences are calling you to conversion? What and who is helping you to persevere along the path of future hope? What is compelling you to reclaim your baptism, to persevere and live differently? What gives you hope that another world is possible? This weekend is an opportunity to reflect on that, to name those experiences, and to offer thanks. In doing that, we are responding to Jesus’ words, spoken to Zacchaeus as they are to us: “Come down from your perch! I’m staying at your house.” Let’s open our doors to him, to a future of hope.