September 27, 2020: The Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Pastor’s Corner
This weekend, Jesus tells the parable of the two sons in which He highlights the necessity for obedience. Jesus’ direct critique is towards the heart-hearted Jewish leaders whose behavior does not match their apparent piety. But there is a lesson for us as well. Both the context and shape of the story reveals that the ability to change our minds is an essential ingredient for cultivating obedience. If we want to be people who follow God’s will of happiness for our lives, we must have the ability to change our minds. The parable suggests three ways in which this happens.
First, Jesus begins, not by relating the story, but by asking a question. He asks: “What is your opinion?” And after relating the narrative, he concludes with another incisive, if rhetorical, question: “which of the son’s did his Father’s will?” Famously, Jesus asks more questions than he gives answers. In fact, over 300 times in the Gospel, Jesus asks a question in order to engage his audience and to lead them to the wisdom. In this particular case, Jesus is hoping to awaken a sense that conversation of mind and heart is required in order to follow God’s will. In fancy philosophical terms, by asking questions, Jesus is creating the condition of possibility of changing one’s mind. Put simply, you can’t change your mind if you don’t think about it.
Second, we can underestimate the difficulty of changing minds in a way which effects behavior. In a particular, it seems to be more difficult to let go of something or some belief we have or hold dear than it is to receive something new. For example, a number of years ago there was a movement to encourage people to use paper bags, rather than plastic, at the grocery store. At first, grocers tried to incentivize people by giving them a 0.5 cent credit when they used paper bags. The result was marginal at best, so a different tack was taken. Instead, when a 0.5 cent charge was added for choosing a plastic bag, the result was dramatic. People preferred the free paper. Even though there was financial equivalency, people changed their behavior whenever faced with having to pay rather than receive. Human nature is such that we find it much more difficult to let go. At the end of the day, the first son who says “yes” to his father’s invitation to work in the vineyard is not able to let go of his own will. In order for obedience to grow, of our own will, we need to let go.
Third, it is not enough simply to be aware that our thinking is not state of the art, but we need to know how we can move from changing our mind to changing our behavior. Here is perhaps another aspect to our human nature that seems counter intuitive: we often don’t change our behavior by changing our minds, but the other way around. We change our minds when we change our behavior. Again, to return to the plastic grocery bag example. When San Francisco was the first major city to ban single use plastic bags in 2007, there was a poll done before the law took effect which revealed that two-thirds of the Bay Area was against the ban. After the ban was in place for two months and had become somewhat normative, the same poll group discovered that two-thirds of folks now agreed with the ban. Such a dramatic change in polling number was staggering given the short time period. But it highlights the reality: when we invest in changing what we do, our mind will follow. The son who says “no” to his father, didn’t need to change his mind. He simply had to get to work, no matter his thoughts or feelings. In our spiritual lives, we can get stuck in the reflection or discernment stage of trying to have total clarity of God’s will. The second son reminds us that belief follows behavior. If we want to grow in faith and trust in God, we have to have concrete spiritual practices as part of our daily routine.
In our Gospel, Jesus is inviting you to obedience. He wants you to choose His will and way of happiness. But this requires a change of mind and conversion of heart. Let’s face it: nobody’s perfect. Just as Jesus engages his followers with questions, we might ask ourselves two important ones this week. First, what do we need to let go of in order to discover God’s will? Second, what is one practical behavior can we start doing today that will form our minds and soften our hearts towards God’s ways?
~ Fr. Michael