Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 16 – Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 (Related)

In today’s reading Ezekiel is demolishing a false argument which he (and of course God) has heard the Israelites ‘proverbing’ (literally) – repeating something which has passed into common usage because it appears to ring true. It sounds as though he is hearing the repetition of this proverb, which is being quoted as fact. The people really do believe that children are punished for their parents’ sins. More specifically, to put this into context, they have seen the Northern Kingdom of Israel destroyed by Assyria, but now the prophets are saying that they, in the South, are headed in the same direction. Seeking to justify themselves, they are blaming God for punishing them because of the sins of the previous generation. It is this false thinking, and what flows from it, which God, through his prophet, has to challenge. The argument is a bit complex, so let’s take it to bits, and add back in the verses (v.5-24) which the Lectionary has filleted out, so that we can make sense of it.

1)            Reward is personal

Ezekiel challenges head-on the notion that Judah is being punished for Israel’s sin. ‘Stop repeating that!’ he says. ‘The one who sins is the one who will die.’ Of course we all know that many children’s lives are tragically marred by their parents’ lifestyle, their abuse or their neglect, sometimes resulting in a new generation of abusers. In that sense the sins of the fathers are indeed visited on their children (Ex 20:4). But that isn’t the point here, as the prophet goes on to explain in the missing verses of this chapter.

2)            Repentance is possible

He goes on to tell the tale of three generations of people. Grandad lives a holy life, and refuses to commit any of the list of classic sins, such as false worship, adultery, robbery, usury and so on. Surely he will be declared righteous by God? Of course – no-one could dispute that. But then his son, Dad, goes completely the other way, and commits every sin in the book. What will God think of him? Again, it’s obvious – he’ll be condemned and punished (note that here Ezekiel isn’t discussing the problem of the innocent suffering while the guilty appear to go free. He’s talking about the ultimate fate of individuals under God’s judgement). But then his son, generation no. 3, sees the evil life of his Dad and follows the righteous way of Grandad instead. He’s going to be OK, surely? So the idea of punishment for your parents’ sins is a nonsense in this story. The moral is obvious – stop regarding yourselves as victims of the choices of others, and choose to do what’s right yourself. If you do end up being punished, it can only possibly be because of your own sin.

3)            Responsibility is liberating

Back to the Lectionary, and here comes the good news. To choose to accept responsibility for your own sin, to repent of it, and to live as God demands, is the best thing you could possibly do. To admit our culpability is not to walk around with our guilt hanging round our necks like a millstone, or to live and look perpetually as though we were miserable sinners: rather it is the way to rid ourselves (v.30) of our offences. The NRSV mistranslates v.25 slightly – the way of the Lord is not unjust. It is unfathomable – it just doesn’t make sense, and it’s that mystery of God’s grace which they are struggling with. That translation makes sense of the repetition of the word takan in the rest of the verse. Their thinking is not ‘unjust’; it’s daft! It just doesn’t make sense. God is gracious, and is pro-life (v.32), in the sense that he loves it when anyone turns to him and starts living justly. No way is he going to punish them, even if their parents were as evil as you can get. So man up, take responsibility for your own sins rather than claiming to be victims, and you’ll get a new heart and a new spirit. You’ll change: you’ll become a new person inside, and that will be the most liberating thing ever.

In a church in which the preaching (and expectation) of repentance has almost completely gone out of the stained-glass window, maybe we need to hear again the good news contained in this chapter.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 14 – Genesis 50:15-21 (Related)

On a first reading today’s passage, and that of the accompanying gospel from Matthew 18, are both about forgiveness. But in fact there is so much more to it that that. I want to encourage us to read it today from the point of view suggested by the Romans 14 Epistle (although I would have preferred Philippians 2) about seeing things through another’s eyes.

The story is straightforward. Joseph’s brothers, who, you will remember, have chucked him in a pit, sold him as a slave, and reported his death to his Father Jacob, are expecting Joseph to act as they would have done now that dear old Dad, the glue in this dysfunctional family, has died. Their guilty consciences are still expecting punishment, and now is the time, they fear. And, it has to be said, Joseph has not always treated them with total kindness. But the bottom line is that they expect he will act out of cruelty and revenge, as they did all those years ago. So they make up a story about Jacob’s final wishes, just to cover their backs.

Joseph, though, will have none of it, and would have forgiven them, the passage suggests, even without the supposed words of Jacob from beyond the grave. He puts flesh onto the bare bones of the idea of forgiveness with three things: humility, understanding and action. Maybe we, as those commanded (and indeed threatened) to forgiveness by the Gospel, can gain some insight into what this might actually look like.

Humility – ‘Am I in the place of God?’ asks Joseph. God alone is the one able to forgive or not, although of course as Jesus’ followers we do have the power to bind or loose on earth, whatever that means! To refuse to forgive is to attempt to hold on to some kind of power over people, and that is not our job. Forgiveness requires the humility to believe that ‘It is [God’s] to avenge – [he] will repay’ (Deuteronomy 32:35) and to let go of the desire to punish and leave it up to him.

Understanding – ‘God intended it for good’. Just as it is up to the person injured to choose to forgive – it can’t simply be demanded of you – so it is the privilege of the person injured to see things not from our own point of view but from God’s. Imagine how hurtful this comment would have been had it come from the brothers! ‘It was fine to sling you in a pit because God has brought good out of it!’ Please don’t ever say anything like this to someone who has been mistreated. But it is Joseph’s privilege to understand the hand of God even through the pain. I preached on this passage on my final Sunday at the church which I had been forced to leave through having been bullied out, and I made the point that there is a great difference between the perfect will of God and the redemptive will of God. Only the victim can articulate this kind of understanding, but it does remind us that God is greater than our pain.

Action – ‘I will provide for you’. Again the brothers can only think of what they would do in his place, but Joseph reassures them and in doing so puts his money where his mouth is. His forgiveness is not going to be mere words: he is going to take deliberate action to bless those who have sinned against him. Sometimes, of course, this is neither possible nor desirable. Sometimes you just have to get out and go as far away as you can – we’ll consider trust in a moment. But since their paths had to keep crossing, Joseph decided to bless rather than to curse.

So let’s end with perhaps the most important aspect of putting ourselves in others’ shoes. Are they to be trusted? When we have been hurt by someone else, is it possible to rebuild trust? In fact this whole paragraph is about trust, or the lack of it. The brothers have apparently been reconciled to Joseph in chapter 45, but they clearly don’t trust him an inch if they think that now Dad has died he can finally get the vengeance he has been brewing up. And Joseph’s articulation to them of his humility, understanding and actions in the future are clearly meant to rebuild trust between them. So when well-meaning Christians tell damaged people that they just have to let go, forgive and be reconciled, is this sound advice, or yet another barb in the whipping they have already received?

The answer is ‘It depends’. I love that line in Romans 12 (where the Deuteronomy bit about vengeance is quoted by Paul: ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.’ (12:18). Clearly it isn’t always possible, and doesn’t always depend on us. My advice to a victim of repeated domestic violence, for example, would be to get out now and get away. Trust is what got you those repeated beatings in the first place: you trusted someone who was untrustworthy. But at other times, yes, trust can and should be rebuilt. But it takes time – note that Joseph promises to provide for the brothers and their children.

But trust is not to be confused with forgiveness, and the two are not interdependent. If you have heard the command to forgive to include restoration, you might have felt deeply upset, and even scared, by today’s Gospel, if you have not found reconciliation to be possible. You clearly can’t have forgiven them, or you’d be best mates now. So no way is God going to forgive you. But if we redefine forgiveness as we did above, as the deliberate choice to place someone who has harmed you into God’s hands for him to punish, that is completely different from liking or trusting them. It’s much more about letting go and walking away than hugging them and making up. The second isn’t always possible: the first is a choice any of us can make.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 13 – Ezekiel 33:7-11 (Related)

I recently taught a course on Christian initiation at the theological college where it has been my pleasure to work, and I expressed the opinion that virtually all of the problems of the church today had at their root poor and unbiblical practices in initiation, or what has to happen in order for people to join the Church. In particular the notion of repenting, which lies at the heart of both the OT and the Gospel set for today, has, I suggested, gone completely out of fashion, so that everybody is welcome to baptism and to church membership with no questions asked, and no requirement of any change of lifestyle. The constant preaching of repentance by the prophets, John the Baptist,  Jesus himself, and the Apostles, has been soft-pedalled almost out of existence. This appears, in my experience, to be as true for Alpha converts as for those pressganged onto the PCC by the vicar because we need a new treasurer.

The word ‘you’ rings like a refrain through our passage as Ezekiel is reminded by God about the nature of his calling: he is to be like a smoke alarm sounding off to the nation warning them of danger. His job is to make the noise: it is the people’s responsibility to take notice, or to wave something in front of the alarm or press the off button. If people choose to ignore it and die of smoke inhalation, that can’t be blamed on the alarm.

There is an interesting contrast with v.2 of this chapter, where God calls the people to appoint a watchman to warn of coming attackers, and v.7 where it is God, not the people, choosing the watchman. This task is too important to be left to democracy! But while this passage gives us an interesting insight into the role of the prophet – to call out evil and to challenge the people to repentance, it would be too easy to read it merely as a piece of Ezekiel’s autobiography which has nothing to say to us. It is the Gospel passage which broadens out this calling from odd individuals (sometimes very odd!) to the Church as a whole. It simply won’t do to take the ‘I must mind my own business’ line: Christian behaviour and discipleship are not about individual choices. We are the body of Christ, and our Christian life is to be lived together. You only have to look around to see the damage done to the Church’s reputation by a small number of child abuse cases. I can’t help but wonder how often the policies described in Matthew 18 have ever been used in local churches. Or indeed how often new converts are told that that might be if necessary.

But coming back to Ezekiel, we might ask the question ‘Why?’ What’s the point of God sending a warning if the exile is going to happen regardless? There is an answer to that question in v.11, in some words which have become liturgical for Anglicans. God will do all he can to save people from death and destruction. He hates it when people flap their spiritual tea towels at the prophets to get the noise to stop. That poignant final question, ‘Why will you die, house of Israel?’ expresses God’s deep longing for right living in the face of a human refusal to listen and take heed of the warnings. We may not all be called and commissioned like Ezekiel into a specific prophetic ministry, but we are all part of a church which needs to put more beef into repentance than a quick prayer at the start of a service. We need to be encouraging one another to lived changed lives.