Conversion – Pat Falguera, SJ

Luke 11:37-41, Tuesday of Week 28 in Ordinary Time

“God sees the Truth but Waits” is the title of a short story written by Leo Tolstoy. It is owing to the genius of this great Russian writer that the themes of  mercy and  forgiveness; and of condemnation and conversion, continue to influence thought and action among literary critics and philosophers, even to this day.

The short story depicts the narrative of Ivan Dmitrich Aksionov, a man wrongfully accused of murder and banished to Siberia. Ivan is a merchant who goes on a business trip against the wishes of his wife who discourages him because of a nightmare she had the night before.  The foreboding comes to fruition when, on his way back home, police accost Dimitrich.  They find a bloody knife hidden in his bag. This becomes the evidence with which the police accuse him of murder. It turns out that a fellow travelling merchant is found dead – with a cut throat –  the night before in the tavern where Dmitrich had also stayed. Although proclaiming his innocence, Dimitrich is sentenced to life imprisonment in Sibiera where he spends the next 26 years.

There is a very poignant yet redemptive scene towards the end of the short story when Dmitrich finally realizes that a new prisoner, Makar Semyonov, is the one who had framed him for murder years before. When Dmitrich does not snitch on Makar, who had been  planning to escape, Makar begs for forgiveness. “Forgive me”, Makar appeals. “I murdered the merchant. I planted the knife on you.” And to which Dmitrich replies in indignation coupled by sorrow, “To where shall I go? My wife is dead and my children will have forgotten me.”  But the back and forth dialogue between them ultimately results in forgiveness and mercy. “God will forgive you,” Dmitrich tells Makar, “Maybe I am a hundred times worse than you.”

It is with a profound freedom that Dimitrich is able to forgive Makar; and it is with a grace filled humility that Makar is brought to tears and experiences conversion. For out of condemnation comes conversion when  Dmitirich realizes the truth behind the profound statement he made 26 years earlier when he appealed before the judge. “It seems that only God can know the truth; it is to Him alone we must appeal, and from Him alone expect mercy.” This seems to echo the words of the responsorial psalm, “Let your mercy come to me, O Lord.”  

And perhaps it is through the lens of mercy and conversion that we get to understand today’s scriptural readings in a better light. When St Paul proclaims to the Galatians in the first reading about how “for freedom, Christ set us free”, he does so, in reference to an inner freedom. But mind you, St Paul speaks of this freedom from an experience of conversion; an experience of having discovered God’s own mercy, despite his own unworthiness because of his sinful past of persecution.

And thus when Paul shares his own insight that “through the spirit by faith” we discover the hope brought forth by Jesus, St. Paul does so, coming from a dark place in blindness when he struggled to realize the idea of an unconditional love. Paul sees hope because it is light which blinds him, yes, but it is the darkness resulting from blinding light which ultimately frees him to see the truth.

And it is precisely this blindness, this hypocrisy that Jesus condemns in the Gospel. Jesus sees how the Pharisees have been so focused on the letter of the Torah, that they become blind and do not see the spirit behind the law.  That it is a law of mercy and compassion; that it is ultimately a law of love and altruism; a law of treating others with kindness and respect.

And more so during this time of pandemic, we have seen the folly of being blind to the spirit of the law. What seems to have separated nations who have dealt with covid-19 effectively and nations who have not done so, is a focus on the externals rather than of the internal. When like Pharisees, we become obsessed with the externals of life; when we crave for the number of likes we get on an Instagram post or the number of hearts we receive for a Tiktok video. When like Pharisees, we become trapped in the vicious cycle of reacting against trolls, not realizing that we have become empty cymbals in the process. When our leaders in government focus on greed and staying in power; breaking pacts and taking the nation’s common good as hostage; when our politicians focus on their pork barrels with the end game of perpetuating themselves in power; yet sadly, do not realize that a third of the voices they supposedly represent go desperately hungry. This is really what the Lord condemns in our own pharisaic selves. And like Paul, and countless others after him, including our very own Ignatius of Loyola, this is also what Our Lord ultimately calls us to – a conversion.

Interestingly, the themes of mercy and conversion continued to be tackled later by Leo Tolstoy in his writings, including his literary masterpiece, “War and Peace”. Maybe because Tolstoy also spoke profoundly of his own conversion which he fervently translated to Christian nonviolence ideas in his literary works. It has been said Tolstoy’s conversion and ideas have had a profound influence on Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King and even our very own Ninoy Aquino.

And perhaps, now more than ever, this conversion is what is needed today during these very divisive and disturbing times. Coincidentally, on this exact day, more than a hundred years ago, on the 13th of October 1917, a similar call to conversion took place. In fact, many proclaimed it the miracle of the sun. Hundreds, thousands even, witnessed the sun dancing before their eyes. This was the symbolic light given for the call of conversion which started in the spring of 1917. This was the message of conversion heralded by  Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco, the children to whom Our Lady of Fatima appeared.  A conversion being proclaimed a year before the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic gripped the world in fear and death.

And as we now embrace this cross of our pandemic, this is probably the conversion being asked of us as well. But we can only do so if we have experienced God’s mercy firsthand.

It is my prayer that instead of the pharisaic righteous attitude, we take the stance of the publican and beg God’s forgiveness. It is only then that we can raise our eyes and realize that it is not condemnation emanating from Jesus but a loving, understanding gaze of mercy and compassion. But it takes courage and wisdom to see that even as Jesus condemns our hypocrisy, it is the also same Jesus who forgives us as he glances down at us from the cross, in pain and suffering.

For when we go beyond the ‘letter’ of the tree on which our Lord had been hung, we realize the ‘spirit’ of Our Lord’s dying breath on the cross.  And therein lies our conversion; therein lies our ultimate redemption from the darkness of death towards the light of the resurrection.

*image from the Internet

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