Sunday, September 28, 2008

Thy Will Be Changed? No, My Will Be Changed

Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost – Year A (Proper 21)
Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32; Psalm 25:3-9; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:28-32
Sunday, September 28, 2008 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin.” (Ez 18:30). In these words of God, as conveyed by the prophet Ezekiel, we are told in no uncertain terms what God will do, what God expects of His people, and what the potential consequences are if the people continue in their current way of being. In light of this prophetic proclamation, I can’t help but wonder how God would judge the two contrary sons in the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson.

Like so many of Jesus’ parables, I’ve always struggled with this one, and have even found it a bit troubling at times. There’s the first son, who when his father requests that he go and work in the vineyard, flat out refuses, but eventually goes anyway. Then there’s the second son, who, when his father makes the same request of him, says, “sure thing, I’ll do it,” knowing full well that he has no intention of doing what is asked of him.

I don’t know about your experience growing up, but for me, neither approach would have been an option. I would not dare say I was going to do something and then not follow through, as the second son did. Well, okay, there probably were those rare occasions when I said I would do something, like take out the trash, and then conveniently forgot to do it. So, yeah, maybe, once or twice, I was like the second son. That being the case, maybe I can cut the second son a little slack. I mean, be honest – how many times have we said we’ll do something, knowing that we didn’t want to or having no intention of doing it, just so we won’t have to say “no” to someone for fear of hurting their feelings or out of fear of getting in trouble? I think that’s pretty common human behavior.

And truth be told, in the ancient Middle East, the second son would not have been viewed as having done anything wrong. In that culture, obedience was certainly important, but honor was more important. The second son showed great respect and honor for his father by agreeing to do what he asked. The fact that he didn’t follow through was immaterial. The important thing was that he showed respect, unlike his good-for-nothing brother, who disrespected his father by publicly refusing to do what was asked. So, here again, based on cultural considerations, the second son gets an apparent pass.

Now, when I was growing up, there was no way I would have behaved like the first son. I would never have flat out refused to do what was asked of me, no matter how much I didn’t want to do it. Unlike the first son, I would have agreed, grumbled out of earshot of my father, and reluctantly done what was asked. So, I guess I have a harder time relating to the first son than I do to the second. And I particularly have a hard time relating to the first son because he is the one who ends up being praised, who Jesus upholds as being the paragon of virtue. Sure, the first son ultimately did do the will of his father. But I have a hard time with Jesus justifying his actions. I have a hard time getting beyond the fact that the first son initially refused to comply with his father’s order, regardless of the ultimate result.

The parable of the two sons is,admittedly, a very complex one. As one commentator notes, “Both sons are in the wrong in their own way – the first son treats his father with stark (though honest) disrespect by publicly refusing his order; the second fails to do the father’s will. Conversely, both sons are right in their own way – one gives the right answer; one does the right thing.” This commentator goes on to note that the important things is that “Both sons begin as sons, act as sons, and remain as sons; neither is cast from the family” (Langknecht, 210). This tension, this confusion over how each of the two sons responds, or doesn’t respond, illustrates the struggle that many of us have with doing what we want to do versus doing what God wants us to do.

This struggle is not limited to us mere mortals. Looking back through salvation history, we see that even the “greats,” Abraham, Moses, all the prophets, even Jesus, struggled at times with whether they really wanted to do what God was asking of them. In these cases, they went so far as to argue with God about what was being asked. They tried to get God to reconsider His request. “As Rabbi Heschel puts it, from Abraham through Jesus we see how the great figures of our faith are not in the habit of easily saying: “Thy will be done!” but often, for a while at least, counter God’s invitation with: “Thy will be changed!” (Rolheiser).

But what we see from these pillars of our faith is that ultimately it is not God’s will that is changed, but our attitude, our response that is changed. It is all about an exercise in conversion – of our will changing, of our will being brought into conformance with God’s will, of God’s will becoming our will. Our faith is an ongoing process of conversion. And in the process, like the first son, we end up doing things that we may have had no intention of doing. Things are turned upside down. Our lives are turned upside down. As scholar Ann Zimmerman notes, “This is what conversion does: it upends our world and challenges us to change our minds. our hearts, and our lives and to do the Father’s will” (Zimmerman).

We are not told why the first son had a change of mind and heart. He obviously had some sort of epiphany, some sort of conversion experience that made him go against his initial inclination and ultimately do what was requested of him in the first place. I suppose, what it boils down to is personal choice. It comes down to human action and human response. This parable illustrates the importance of our response to God – whether we do God’s will or not is our choice – ours and ours alone.

The good news in all of this may not be readily apparent, but is found in Jesus’ affirmation that the one who is justified is the first son – the one who ultimately did his father’s will, regardless of his initial reaction or behavior. The good news is found in God’s injunction to us through the prophet Ezekiel. Our initial reaction is not what counts. What counts is what we ultimately choose to do. Throughout the process, we do have a choice. Even if we initially reject what God is calling us to do, we are free to change our minds and our hearts. We are free, as God calls us in Ezekiel, to “Cast away from [ourselves] all the transgressions that [we] have committed against [God], and get [ourselves] a new heart and a new spirit!” (Ez 18:31a). We are called all along the way, at any point in the process, to “Turn, then, and live.” (Ez 18:32b). And in so choosing a new heart and a new spirit that lead to new life, that which was before, the stubbornness with which we rejected God’s call to do His will, is forgotten, put behind us. It is no longer important. In turning away from our former reaction, in turning toward what God is asking us to do, we will not be judged on the former action, but on the latter. We will be judged based on the new life to which we have turned, not on the previous life. As Clement of Alexandria wrote in his sermon on this very Gospel lesson, “The doors are open for all who sincerely and wholeheartedly return to God; indeed, the Father is most willing to welcome back a truly repentant son or daughter” (Barnecut).

This is what is so radical about the Gospel. This is what is so radical about God’s message of love and mercy. For those who truly repent, for those who experience conversion, the old life is dead and buried. We have new life in God through Christ. And that is the only life that will be remembered in God’s eyes. This is what God was railing against in our lesson from Ezekiel. The people were so bound up in corporate solidarity that the sins of the father were visited on his sons and his son’s sons. But God says “no, that is not how I work.” God has proclaimed a new way of being, saying “each of you is responsible for your own actions, for your own choices, for your own lives. Therefore, get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Turn, then, and live.”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul talks about what this conversion entails. Paul tells us you must “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13). Working out our salvation with, as Paul terms it, “fear and trembling” does not imply that this need be a frightening or terrible process. But it also does not imply that it will be easy. It’s so much easier to focus on what we want to do for ourselves, on what seems to be best for us. It’s so much easier to give into the temptations of the world. They are, after all, often much more appealing on first glance. All you have to do is look at the news about global warming, rampant global poverty, or most recently, the current world financial crisis to see that, for many, succumbing to the temptations of greed and personal gain was far easier and far more appealing than doing the hard work of acting in a socially responsible manner.

While looking out for number one may be easier and seem more satisfying initially, our contrary first son illustrates that our true spiritual growth, and ultimately, our true reward, come through those conversion experiences when we are forced to roll up our sleeves and really struggle with discerning what God is calling us to do and be, when we struggle with discerning not what is easy or profitable to us personally, but what is just and true, what is right in the eyes of God. As the prophet Ezekiel says, this is done by choosing a new heart and a new sprit. And in that struggle, we gain new life. Just look at our forefathers and foremothers in the faith. As a result of their struggles, they ended up with lives that were far more interesting and far more fulfilling than would have been the case had they chosen to do what was easy, had they not chosen to struggle with God to discern what the Father asked of them.

To illustrate the point, I leave you with a little story to ponder. “In his memoir, Report to Greco, Nikos Kazantzakis shares this story: As a young man, he spent a summer in a monastery during which he had a series of conversations with an old monk. One day he asked the old monk: ‘Father, do you still do battle with the devil?’ The old monk replied: ‘No, I used to, when I was younger, but now I have grown old and tired and the devil has grown old and tired with me. I leave him alone and he leaves me alone.’ ‘So your life is easy then?’ remarked Kazantzakis. ‘Oh no,’ replied the monk, ‘it’s much worse, now I wrestle with God!’” (Rolheiser).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Barnecut, Edith, OSB. “
Thoughts from the Early Church.” The Center for Liturgy Sunday Website. University of St. Louis. (24 September 2008).

Langknecht, Hank J., et al. New Proclamation: Year A, 2008, Easter to Christ the King. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Rolheiser, Ron, OMI. “
In Exile.” The Center for Liturgy Sunday Website. University of St. Louis. (24 September 2008).

Zimmerman, Joyce Ann, ed. “
Working with the Word.” The Center for Liturgy Sunday Website. University of St. Louis. (24 September 2008).

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