Conversions of heart

Twenty sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time:

All the readings for today are about conversion and God’s mercy towards those who change their ways. Too often, we think about conversion in terms of something like joining a particular religion or religious denomination, or suddenly believing in something that one did not believe before—St Paul’s vision comes to mind. But the word metanoia (conversion) really means changing one’s mind. One could even translate it as “having a change of heart.”

The Gospel readings encourage us to be open to allowing God to work through our prayer lives and to have a change of heart about others. The passage from Ezekiel begins with human complaints about God’s mercy toward those not judged worthy of it. This is a human way to respond to others. When others hurt or harm us, the easiest response is to desire for them to suffer some kind of compensatory harm for the harm that they have done to us, or at least to be able to hold negative mental judgments about them. We like to think, the other is vicious or the other is a bad or evil person. God does care about justice and injustice. God does care about people turning around their ways and becoming people who live well. And when people who were behaving badly start to act in loving and virtuous ways again, then God wants this situation to flourish. God’s mercy and encouragement predominate, and the sins of the past are completely wiped away.

From a human perspective, this can seem unfair, which is what the people in Ezekiel say. We hear it said today, too: our society might look at prisoners who have had changes of heart, sought forgiveness and to live better, and yet tell them, you deserve to continue to be punished. We see a politician whom we think has acted poorly for a long time do something good, and minimize the goodness of that action. We are very wedded to our schemas and mental apparatus about who other people are. God, however, is flexible. God essentially believes that other people can change even when we do not. God always looks for the good in others and encourages its growth. Thus those who said, “I will never work in the vineyard” and vow not to, but then have a change of heart and do God’s work, are better than those who just talk big. Perhaps someone speaks in holy ways or preaches or writes with talent, but in the end God cares more about whether that person embodies love in their concrete, ordinary, everyday relationships.

What it means to act and to follow God’s will is always a matter of careful discernment, but the readings emphasizes that mercy and humility are key. When in doubt, choose the path that most embodies mercy, that allows others who have fallen or made mistakes a chance to try again. To do this, we have to allow for the possibility that other people grow and can change, can become better people,  even in ways that we do not always see from our limited point of view. If God is open to it, then we must also be open to it, too. If we are afraid of others, then we have to let God tend to our fears and choose to be courageous. Jesus was not afraid of tax collectors, prostitutes, people who broke the law, because love casts out fear. Love is fear’s natural antidote.

Second, St Paul recommends humility. More specifically, he says to think that another is better than oneself. Imagine a person with whom you have had difficulty, but deciding to come to a relational situation thinking that this other person has gifts that you do not have, has strengths that you lack. We can always find in another person something about them to admire or to respect–even people who have hurt us badly have admirable traits. We can also remember that ourselves have plenty of flaws–those we know and those we don’t even recognize yet. Rather than puffing ourselves up and thinking we are better than the other, who lacks some good quality that we desire, we ought to focus on the good in the other, and let God take care of their limits.

Thus, really, the passages speak of two kinds of conversion: the conversion of people who have a change of heart to act for the good, and the conversion of the people who witness that change and respond with acceptance and love. We are called as Christians to welcome into community those who do make changes, and to embrace them with love and mercy, not in a way that looks down on them from on high, but in a way that encourages us to admire them and find what the gifts they may have that we lack. We must allow our hearts to be softened to be “natural hearts,” more like God’s own heart. Then God’s mercy becomes our own.