Conversion

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Luke 19:1-10

This is a day of many special observances. The text from Habakkuk begins, “O Lord, how long…”; those of you who are here have obviously mastered the transition from Daylight Saving to Standard time. Habakkuk goes on to say that the political and moral situation of his nation is a disaster, but he holds out hope for a vision of a new time; today is the last Sunday before the elections, and more religious fervor has been poured out on this campaign than any in my rather long memory. Some people believe that the affairs of the Red Sox are more important than those of the election, but I dare not comment on that: freedom of speech in Boston does not go that far. The text from 2 Thessalonians is a grand expression of gratitude on St. Paul’s part for the steady increase in saintliness of his little flock in Thessaloniki. Today is the eve of All Saints Day when we remember the saints who have died in the Lord. The secular celebration of Halloween these days seems to have come untethered from the religious holiday, but here in chapel we note the great cloud of witnesses with whom we live in eternity. Finally, to conclude the many special occasions of this day, Protestant churches commemorate the Reformation. Our Chapel Choir and Collegium will perform Bach’s marvelous Reformation Cantata, Ein Feste Burg.

I am going to pass for the moment on all these topics, however, to focus on the point of the gospel lesson, the power of Jesus to convert such a person as Zacchaeus. Religious conversion is an extremely contentious topic these days. American society is based on principles of religious tolerance, which usually means that we should treat people as fine just as they are, in terms of religion. Yet every religion believes that its own way is particularly apt for living out our destiny in relation to what is ultimate. Some religions, such as Advaita Vedanta and Judaism, tend to tie the aptness of their religion to a particular people, a social class or ethnic group. Others, such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, believe their way is apt for everyone, although they recognize historical associations with national and ethnic cultures.

In recent years we have seen the rise of fundamentalisms in nearly every religion, fundamentalisms that go beyond advocating their own path to attack the alternative paths as hopeless with regard to authenticity and salvation. Theologians call this strain of fundamentalism “exclusivism,” the conviction that only one’s own way is apt for the ultimate matters of life. Whereas the dark side of fundamentalism is a militant defensiveness and antagonism toward other ways of life, the bright side is a joyous compulsion to convert the others to one’s own path for the sake of their own good. Nearly all religions accept converts who choose to join them and become worthy of acceptance. For theological exclusivists, conversion of others goes beyond offering them a choice that they can freely accept. For exclusivists, the obligation to convert others is part of loving them. Not to do everything possible to convert the others is like dismissing them as important human beings.

Let me illustrate this with our situation here at the University. We have a complex chaplaincy that aims to serve the religious needs of all our students. Student groups representing a vast array of world religions are recognized and supported with regard to their leadership, facilities, and activities, all with the aim of fostering religious practices and maturity as befits university people. This emphasis on flourishing religious pluralism and tolerance flows directly from the theology of Methodism in the original School of Theology, which in turn founded Boston University. The first president of the University, William Fairfield Warren, was a professor of comparative religions as well as dean of the School of Theology. The rule at the University from the beginning has been that all people are to be supported in the practice of their religion and that no one is to be made to feel inferior because of their religion. This rule did not derive at Boston University from some secular Enlightenment principle of privatizing religion so that it does not count; it comes rather from the theological conviction that God’s grace cannot be limited to any one path and that all may count.

The negative rule following from this has been and still is that proselytizing is forbidden on campus: you can explain your faith and invite others to join, but you cannot put pressure on them to do so. The University Chaplains work hard and cooperatively to encourage the religious practice of all the religious groups while at the same time preventing activities that seem to harass or disrespect people of other religions or no religion. Fine and delicate lines need to be drawn here separating the vigorous witness of a religion from the pressure to make others feel inferior, disrespected, or damned if they do not join it. All theological points can be debated, of course, in academic ways proper to university life. This happens frequently in informal conversation as well as formal discussions in classrooms and special events. But theological debates should not be framed in ways that target people for conversion. Respect for the others’ beginning point is the precondition for intellectual debate in the civil society of the University.

You can imagine how difficult this rule against proselytizing is for students from exclusivistic religions. Converting others is close to the center of their intrinsic religious practice, and this because of imperatives to love and care. Yet they cannot do this here in ways that make the others feel pressured or harassed. Proselytizing is as much in the eye of the proselytized as it is in the intent of the proselytizer. Insistence on foundational respect as the principle of civil society in the University is hard on the evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Muslims who believe that others miss salvation. It is hard on observant Jews who have to be careful not to suggest that secular Jews are inferior as Jews because they are non-observant. In cases like these, genuine religious conviction legitimately can be expressed only in ways that do not seem to be pressured existential criticisms of those who do not share them. The University Chaplains work very hard to help draw the proper lines.

Imperfect as our University system is for insisting on the foundational respect necessary for freedom of religion, would it not be a vast step toward world peace if all the world followed such a policy? Instead of such political idealism today, however, I commend to you Jesus’ approach to converting Zacchaeus. Note that Jesus did not attempt to convert Zacchaeus from one religion to another. Zacchaeus, like Jesus, was a Jew, a “son of Abraham,” as Jesus put it. But Zacchaeus was a failure as a Jew. As a chief tax collector, he worked for the Roman occupation force. Tax collecting in those days was something like a franchise operation: the collector contracted with the government to raise a certain amount of money, and sometimes collectors were unscrupulous about how that was done. So Zacchaeus was a cheat, and he had made himself very wealthy at least in part by defrauding others. He admitted as much. All this was very contrary to even ordinary faithful Jewish practice, not to speak of the religious virtuosity of saintly Jewish people. The technical term for this kind of religious failure is that Zacchaeus was a “schlub.” Every religion has schlubs, usually far more schlubs than saints and spiritual virtuosi.

Despite being a schlub, Zacchaeus longed for something he knew not what. He was so intrigued to see who Jesus was that he climbed a tree to get a bet
ter view; imagine a short, rich, chief governmental official doing something like that. What did Jesus do? He called him down from the tree, treated him respectfully, and said he would take Zacchaeus’ hospitality. Apparently no one had treated Zacchaeus like that in a long time, because the effect was astonishing. People began to mutter against Jesus for associating with the likes of Zacchaeus, but Zacchaeus right there said he would give half his wealth to the poor, instantly becoming a virtuoso of charity. Right there he said he would pay back four times the amount he might have defrauded people. That not only was a confession of guilt and repentance but a saintly work to make amends: the Torah specified returning what you stole plus 20%, not 300%. Jesus said Zacchaeus had been lost, but that salvation had come to his house. That is true conversion, from being lost to being saved within the religion of his house, in this case as a son of Abraham like Jesus.

By no means do I want to minimize differences between religions. Disputing theological differences is my business as a professor. Nevertheless, the existential matters of faith have more to do with the difference between schlubs and saints than they do with differences between religious affiliations and theologies. I have taken part in many inter-religious dialogues, with the universal experience that the leaders of the various faiths who engage one another have more in common with one another, and more mutual respect, than they do with the schlubs in their own religion. As a Protestant I agree with Luther’s criticism of selling indulgences that would buy people a place in heaven, and with his insistence that each individual can be related directly to God, as well as indirectly through the church. So I guess the Reformation movement was preferable to the Roman Catholic establishment of its time. But I regret the vicious divisions it caused with all their wars, and I regret the action of Pope Leo X to excommunicate Lutherans, causing a still permanent schism. I have much more solidarity with and respect for saintly Catholics than I do with Protestant schlubs. No sectarian principle can limit God’s grace to bring people to attention in ultimate matters. Why waste time trying to convert the saints of other religions when the fields are white with lost souls like Zacchaeus for whom many hands are needed for the harvest?

With regard to celebrating Reformation Day, let us do so with studied ambivalence, remembering that in Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the enemy is Satan, not Catholics. With regard to celebrating All Hallow’s Eve, let us lift our hearts in joy for all the saints who attend on God, not only those of our fold. With regard to Habakkuk’s hope for mitigating political disaster, let us remember that it is rich and powerful schlubs like Zacchaeus whose greed and corruption bring it on. With regard to the time, the time is now for us to catch the attention of the greedy and corrupt and bring them to a conversion like Zacchaeus’. The world is such a disaster now that the need for genuine conversion, after the model of Jesus, has ultimate urgency. May God be with us this week. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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