Don’t you just love politicians? If they get something right they take the credit, but if they get it horribly wrong they just blame the previous government from the other side of the House, who, while they were in power, got the country into such a mess that it is taking ages for us to undo it and right all the wrongs of their administration. School children have a slightly less mature version of this: when caught out in some mischief the response can all too easily be ‘He made me do it, Miss!’
The people of Israel, in exile far from home in Babylon, are playing this game too. You can’t blame us, Ezekiel, for getting ourselves into this mess. It was all those previous generations who ignored God and lived evil and idolatrous lives who went off the rails, while we are now paying the price. That’s the meaning of the common proverb of the time about eating sour grapes.
Ezekiel needs to refute this opinion, and its underlying implication that God just isn’t fair. It’s easy to feel like that at times, but for God’s people the starting point must be that if there’s a dispute God must be right and we must be wrong, otherwise he is not God in any normal sense of the word. ‘Will not the judge of all the earth do right?’ asks Abraham in Genesis 18, obviously expecting the answer ‘Yes!’ But God is not just fair, he is merciful too, and again and again in this passage he holds out hope for forgiveness, if only his people will return to him in repentance.
This passage teaches us much about sin, guilt and forgiveness, much which many of us still need to learn. Firstly, that God remains unconvinced by the blame game. Ever since Adam told God that Eve had given him the fruit to eat, and she blamed it on the snake, the human race has tried to wriggle out of a sense of guilt and shame by putting the responsibility for it elsewhere. But this doesn’t wash with God, and never has. ‘The one who sins is the one who will die’, he explains in v 4.We all have individual responsibility for our actions, and we can never put the blame on someone else.
Secondly, it teaches us that we have choices to make, and that we must bear their consequences. Of course this doesn’t work in the short term, or else the Bible wouldn’t contain those agonising passages about why evil people appear to prosper while the innocent suffer. But in the scope of eternity our choices matter, whether they be choices to sin or to repent.
Thirdly, this text speaks, as we have said, of the mercy of God. Against the commonly–held view that God is only there to have fun smiting people at any excuse, Ezekiel affirms that God takes no delight in the death of anyone but, as the liturgy puts is, he would rather they turned from their wickedness and lived. God is neither a spoilsport nor a monster, and genuinely holds us his creatures in love, although never the indulgent kind in which it doesn’t matter what we get up to.
Therefore, the text seems to ask, why on earth don’t we take advantage of that mercy? Why is it so deeply embedded into human nature that we’d rather moan at God and blame others than simply turn round and accept his forgiveness? Why does it seem the hardest thing in the world to put our hands up, admit our wrong, receive forgiveness and restoration? Have you noticed how often on the telly someone who has had something horrible happen to them or their family tells us that they feel ‘bitter’? And how rarely and how notable it is when someone expresses forgiveness to the perpetrators, someone like Gordon Wilson of Enniskillen? Why hang on to sin and bitterness when forgiveness is so much easier and more rewarding. If Christians haven’t learnt that lesson, what hope is there for the rest?