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.