3rd Week Advent (T): Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma
In the great Christian epic poem, Paradise Lost, John Milton portrays the fall of God's angel, Satan, using four simple words: “I will not serve!” Confronted by the Archangel Michael, the rebellious Satan is ordered to submit to the will of the Father and conform to his angelic nature—to be a servant of the Almighty. Satan is poisoned by pride and a lust for power, famously declaring, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n.” He justifies his rebellion against heaven's King by appealing to the injustice of God's rule, describing his Creator as “our grand foe [. . .] Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav'n.” Adding rank hypocrisy to his list of sins, Satan establishes himself as the sole tyrant of Pandemonium (Hell), thus demonstrating that he is willing to serve after all, so long as it is his own will that he serves and no other. “Non serviam—I will not serve!” is the rallying cry for generations of those who know better, do better, feel better, and think better than He Who created them. The difference between the rebellious angel and rebellious man is that the man or woman who refuses God's service can repent and embrace the goodness of their Creator's beatific plan. Advent is a time for us to examine our willingness to serve, to be working servants of God for one another.
Jesus sets before the chief priests and elders a question about two brothers. The first refuses to serve his father but changes his mind and does as he is ordered. The second readily agrees to serve but never does. The question Jesus asks is: which one of the two did his father's will? In the end, both agreed to serve, but only the first brother actually served. The priests and elders correctly answer that the first brother, despite his initial refusal, does his father's will. Rather than praising the priests and elders for their wisdom, Jesus condemns them for their disobedience to John the Baptist. He says, “Yet even when you saw [prostitutes and tax collectors believe and repent], you did not later change your minds and believe him.” Like the fallen angels before them, the priests and elders said, “Non serviam—I will not serve.” Their stubborn refusal to believe John's message—despite the faithful witness of the worst sinners—leaves them abandoned on the wreck of sin and last in line to enter the Kingdom, if they enter at all.
It is important that we are clear about exactly what it is that Jesus is condemning. More than their disbelief, Jesus is condemning the priests and elders for ignoring the evidence of God's mercy in the repentance of the worst sinners among them. It's not that the priests and elders disbelieve; it's that they disbelieve even after they have been shown direct evidence of God's power to transform disobedient lives. In his question about the two brothers, Jesus is careful to show that the first brother refuses to serve at first but later changes his mind and faithfully serves. The second brother easily agrees to serve but does not follow his brother's example and change his mind about actually serving. It is not enough that we say we will do the Father's will. That's easy. We must follow through and actually serve, really do the work given to us. Heart, mind, hands must all serve together to do His will. Any one of these—heart, mind, hands—can say, “I will not serve” and all three are sent to the back of the line that waits to enter the Kingdom.
While waiting for the coming of the Lord among us at Christmas, we are given the chance to change our minds about serving the Father's will. We cannot deceive ourselves as Satan did and believe that b/c we will not serve God we do not serve anyone at all. Refusing to serve God is nothing more than serving one's own will. That's not the freedom that brings us to Christ. Satan preaches that God's tyranny in heaven is slavery. But pride, especially the pride of “Non serviam,” is a self-imposed slavery—a slave wrapping himself in the chains of rebellion. Watch the prostitutes and tax collectors. They are free in the service of their Father's will.