By Michael Fitzpatrick
A Reading from Ezekiel 18:1-4, 19-32
1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? 3 As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.
19 Yet you say, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.
21 But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. 23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? 24 But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die.
25 Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? 26 When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. 27 Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. 28 Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?
30 Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.
Although the lectionary omits some of the repetition in vv. 5-18, I encourage you to take a moment with your Bible and read the whole of Ezekiel 18. The text is quite unambiguous about what sins it has in mind in this larger discussion about who shall suffer the consequences of sin. Faithlessness in respect to other people’s marriages, failing to honor promises, lending money at interest, failing to care for the hungry and destitute — it’s an exacting and daunting list.
Ezekiel 18 serves to argue against a certain theological determinism, that if your forebears sin, then your life is doomed to suffer the consequences of their sin. The Word of the Lord challenges this with the assurance that anyone who turns away from sin and lives in obedience to the Holy One of Israel will live. In other words, no matter who we are or the choices of others, repentance and salvation is always available to each person. No one is doomed to death without hope.
Yet the Lord is not indifferent to the choice we make. Again and again, the message of the passage is to call people to repent, to offer the assurance that no matter how ugly one’s life has been, the deliverer can redeem all. As God says several times, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? . . . Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! . . . For I have no pleasure in the death of any one; so turn, and live.”
Our Creator does not want to see any person perish; that is why the choice is so stark and so urgent. Turn and live! We do not have to perish in the bondage of sin; all will be forgiven if we just repent and turn! Let us give thanks this day for our redeemer who takes no pleasure in our deaths, but who has made provision for our redemption and who calls us this very day to turn and live.
Michael Fitzpatrick is a doctoral student in philosophy at Stanford University. He attends St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, Calif., where he serves as a lay preacher and teacher.
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