VERBUM DOMINI

A Tale of Two Wills

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People love conversion stories. From that of Saint Paul to Saint Augustine, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton to the man sitting next to us in the pews, we are fascinated by these stories of grace, repentance and homecoming. For “cradle Catholics,” these personal testimonies are often a source of renewal.

Someone else’s discovery leads to their rediscovery. One story might recount a gradual intellectual conversion, captivated by the truth and wisdom of the Church. Another story might credit conversion to the beauty of the faith (plenty of poets, including T.S. Eliot, were drawn to Catholicism this way). There are also stories of pure grace, an interior enlightenment, where conversion takes place in a flash (google “Alphonse Ratisbonne” for an amazing first hand account of such an experience). Whatever the twists and turns of the tale, these grace-filled stories benefit all believers.

In our gospel parable this weekend, Jesus speaks to the chief priests and elders about two brothers. The first refuses to do his father’s will, but later repents. These are the tax-collectors and prostitutes who are hearing the Word and “entering the kingdom of God before you.” Having first refused, going their own way, they hear his call all the more distinctly. It is so unlike their own voice. They know they are not with him. They know they are following their own way. When they hear his voice then, they know he is asking them to change: “Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?” Being apart from him, they make out the difference, and they can decide to change.

The second brother in Jesus’ parable agrees to the father’s request, but doesn’t actually do anything. It is worth noting that in our English translation this brother says “yes” to his father. However, in the original Greek, he simply says “I.” The point being that when his father asks him to work in the vineyard, he doesn’t actually agree with his father. He agrees with himself. He conflates his father’s will and his own. He has the appearance of serving his father, but in reality he serves himself. He probably can’t even see the difference. This is a danger for all believers. Believing ourselves well acquainted with God, we begin to confuse our ways with his ways. Convinced we are “in good standing,” we lose sensitivity for his voice. We no longer say “yes” but “I.”

Stories of conversion are stories of discovery, the discovery of this God who is not like me. This is certainly a grace for those who experience it. But it is also a grace for us. For we all need to make that discovery over and over again.