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Free will and the drama of sin

On the Readings for Sunday, October 1, 2017

Detail from "St. Francis praying" (1595) by El Greco []

• Ez 18:25-28
• Psa 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
• Phil 2:1-11
• MT 21:28-32

Many years ago, I exchanged letters with an atheist. In the course of our discussion, he made two statements about how the God of Christians was “unfair.” It isn’t fair, he insisted, that God limits human freedom by imposing rules against various actions and desires. And it also isn’t fair, he wrote, that God has allowed pain, suffering, and evil in this world. A good God, he argued, wouldn’t allow such things.

It was an example of having one’s cake and eating it too. Or of having one’s sin and ignoring the consequences too. Yes, the existence of evil is indeed perplexing, “as painful as it is mysterious,” says the Catechism. But the Christian faith, understood correctly, “constitutes the answer to this question” (CCC, par 309). It is part of the “drama of sin” in which which free creatures can either accept or reject the Creator’s gift of love and life.

Of course, skeptics aren’t alone in complaints about divine fairness. I have sometimes thought, with sincere frustration, “This isn’t fair! What did that happen to me? What is God doing?” On such occasions, the words of God to the prophet Ezekiel are worth contemplating: “Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?” That question was put forth in the context of a virtuous man who “turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies…” If that man, God told the people, had turned away from wickedness and done what was “right and just,” he would have lived.

We know this is true and right, but we sometimes convince ourselves that we are the exception to the rule. Doesn’t God realize how fortunate he is to have us on his side? Sure, we don’t put it that way—but that’s basically what happens when we question, in one way or another, the very nature of what is good and evil. It can be tempting to think we have complete autonomy, somehow separate and distinct from God himself. That temptation was embraced by Adam and Eve when they committed the first sin: “In that sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good” (CCC, par 398).

Thus, conversion is necessary; repentance is required. And that is the heart of the parable of the two sons, uttered by Jesus to the chief priests and elders. Working in the vineyard—that is, the Kingdom—is to pursue the will of God, to seek holiness, and to strive after justice. The parable is simple enough: one son says he will not work, but then changes his mind; the other son gives lip service—“Yes, sir”—but fails to enter the vineyard. The first son, said Jesus, said, “I will not,” but “afterwards changed his mind and went.” The Greek term used is closely related to the well-known word metanoia, which Saint John Paul II explained is a reference to “ a radical change of mind and heart. It is necessary to turn away from evil and to enter the kingdom of justice, love and truth which is being established.” The first son, in other words, listened to his conscience, and then chose to enter into the vineyard, to work with his father. This indicates the desire to accept the Father’s gift of divine sonship, to “obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21).

The second son, in the immediate context, represents the Pharisees, who said the right things but failed to do them. Words alone are not enough: “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). God created man with free will, and man freely rejected God’s fellowship. But God, through the humility of the Son, offers fellowship again. Will we gladly enter into the vineyard today?

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in a slightly different form in the September 17, 2014 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Don’t talk of stars, burning above If you’re in love, show me! Tell me no dreams, filled with desire If you’re on fire show me! Love never really changes does it. That line from My Fair Lady sums up what we tend toward, talking a good game. Empty words. Jesus Christ knows our perfidious nature and teaches us who “did the Father’s will”. It illustrates complacency and lip service of many Christians v the sinner who eventually responds to the Word by doing His will. It speaks to the current crisis of empty acclamations of love v the need to repent of, relinquish a sinful life keeping His commandments. Christ is literally saying to us If you love me show me!

  2. These are scary times. Psychologists are trying to have the mainstream acceptance of “neuro-exisitentialism” which claims that free-will is only a matter of different brain chemistry within individuals and how it affects neurons. I think that for all thinking humans who believe that there exists a mind and soul regardless of whether you are in the Pascal camp or Sartre camp the prospect of denying freewill in favor of different modes of behavioral science is indeed dehumanizing.

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