By Amy Peeler
Ezekiel is not, I must admit, a part of my canon within a canon. It’s not my go-to book, but as it has shown up in the lectionary a bit this year, so it has garnered my attention.
If you are like me, you might need a little background reminder: Ezekiel is one of the prophets during the time of Judah’s exile, when that southern Kingdom of Israel was being conquered by the Babylonians.
It is a controversial book, for several reasons. Its precise setting and literary construction are up for debate. It has fantastic visionary images — the glorious chariot with the wheels within the wheels and the four living creatures — that have stimulated controversial strains of mysticism. Finally, it is full of God’s intense judgment. It also has the promise of restoration, but it takes a long time to get there, and this chapter, chapter 18, appears in the midst of this long slog of punishment and woe. Ezekiel’s readers cry out, “The way of the Lord is unfair!” And the contemporary reader might stand by thankful that someone has voiced the thoughts in her head.
We consider in this text the justice of God. What is the calculus of individual and corporate responsibility? Is God simply an angry deity? Is God fair?
At the beginning of his prophetic call, Ezekiel is asked in his vision to eat a scroll of lamentation and woe. My hope is that we, like Ezekiel, might find this scroll, this text, not as bitter as it might seem, but quite unexpectedly sweeter than honey.
To return to their lament: The way of the Lord is unfair! The Israelites say it here twice, at verses 25 and 29. What is the source of their complaint? It is found in the popular proverb mentioned at the beginning of the chapter. The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge. It must have been a popular sentiment, because the prophet Jeremiah records it as well (Jer. 31:29-30).
The meaning seems to be this. Previous generations were unfaithful to the Lord, and we, their children, are reaping the consequences of that behavior. We are the ones in exile, and it isn’t our fault. Au contraire, Ezekiel and Jeremiah say, you are being punished because you yourselves have sinned and not just your parents. That really is one of the key messages of this chapter summarized in verse 4: It is only the person who sins that shall die.
The center section, which is not a part of our reading for today, unfolds in this way. It starts with a righteous man. He is not idolatrous, he is not promiscuous, he is not oppressive to the poor. That person shall live, says God. But what if he has a rebellious child, someone who grows to be violent, unfaithful to God and others? Should that person go unscathed because he had a great father? Surely not! Then what if his son, the grandson of the first man, rejects the ways of his father and lives as his grandfather did, righteously before God and with his neighbor?
Yet, in verse 19 after this generational story, the Israelites wonder why the grandson should suffer for the sins of his father. Again, it does not seem that this question arises out of a deep concern to punish sin but instead a sense of injustice that they are being punished for what their ancestors did. God’s reply: When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. “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 one’s own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be one’s own.”
The addressees of Ezekiel’s message should draw this logical conclusion: if you are suffering the beginnings of exile, it is because you have departed from God. You can’t blame your parents. You are culpable. This message is really the entirety of Ezekiel up to this point: The people, despite all that God has done for them, have turned away and gone after other gods. False gods, created gods, ridiculous gods, but sovereigns nonetheless who capture the time and goods and hearts of the people. Idolatry is the persistent issue, and it issues forth in moral atrocity. Look around, he says; you worship other gods, you sacrifice your children to them, and then you come to the temple to worship. Do you think such actions will go unpunished? Do you think it’s all someone else’s fault?
Thus far I’ve been talking about this episode in the Israelites history, and we have so much to learn from them. May I translate this story from the Israelites to a contemporary setting?
It seems to me we live in a time — maybe all times are this way — when there is great temptation to blame others for the struggles we face.
Allow me to speak frankly:
I teach at a Christian college that over recent years has often found itself in the news. It is easy in those times to scapegoat: Anger against litigious culture, or the administration, or the student body. If it weren’t for ______ my life wouldn’t be so full of headaches.
Let’s broaden it out a bit:
I live in America, and with gratefulness for the freedoms we have and with acknowledgment for the good things that happen each day, I think we can safely say our country is getting a lot of things wrong. Racism, poverty, corruption, political vitriol. And like a bunch of second-graders on the playground, our default is to point the finger and shout as loudly and crassly as you can in 140 characters, “He or she started it!” Believe me, I feel like doing this too!
I live on planet earth, which of late has been pretty dangerous. Fires, earthquakes, record-breaking hurricanes. It’s not my fault! I recycle and ride my bike to work!
In each instance, I can say with righteous anger, why are my teeth bitter when someone else has consumed the sour grapes?
What I believe this text is saying is this: In our quickness to point fingers, we are so busy blaming someone else that we simply do not stop to consider our own culpability, our own sin.
Let me be clear here on a few important points where the possibility for theological misstep, for error, looms large.
- I am not denying the necessity of accountability. If wrong is committed within the boundaries of any particular group, be it an institution, nation, or world, it should be disclosed and corrected as far as humanly possible.
- It is the case that sin has collateral damage, for there are other texts in the Old Testament that claim, “The Lord … visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation (Exodus 34:6-7 = Deuteronomy 5:8-10). “Because of their iniquity, and also because of the iniquities of their fathers they shall rot away like them” (Leviticus 26:39).
- I am not claiming that all evil that befalls us is a direct punishment from God. The world is simply too complex for that. Actions have consequences, and I believe that Scripture affirms God does discipline his children, but we cannot as far as I can tell confidently proclaim that any one event is God’s direct punishment.
That being said, that accountability and systemic sin are real, and that we cannot and should not proclaim what is God’s punishment, the affirmation of universal individual culpability is one of the compelling, refreshingly honest, yet hard to swallow truths of the Christian faith. It’s so simple that my 3-year-old memorized it last week in Awana: Romans 3:23. All have sinned. This is also so profound that millions of pages are written to uncover its depths. This is a vital facet of Ezekiel’s message, and Paul’s leading up to that simple verse in Romans: Gentiles don’t worship God and devour one another (Rom. 1). Jews don’t live out the good law God has given (Rom. 2). All are under sin, all have sinned (Rom. 3).
I was listening to a wonderful podcast a few weekends ago, Truth’s Table, a discussion group of African American theologians, and one woman, Christina Edmondson was giving an address called “grace for liars.” She didn’t mince her words. She came out full force about the evils of racism, but then she also considered her heart and admitted her struggles with lack of forgiveness. It was to me a painful and powerful picture of what Ezekiel is doing as well.
For every way in which we can turn the finger on someone else, all of which may be absolutely true and worthy of recompense, we should also, this text reminds us, acknowledge our own fallenness.
This is not shocking. It isn’t really a newsflash that you aren’t perfect. We live it; we know it, and honestly I find the biblical text incredibly refreshing in that it acknowledges this.
But where does that leave us? In dismay? With the resignation that everyone, and hence everything, is rather messed up?
No. That isn’t the end. Not everything is lost, for, to return to the Israelites, the realization of their sin is the first step toward their restoration. “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” (v. 21). And so he calls them to repentance, to turning around. Letting go of their idolatry and injustice, and embracing the life-giving ways of God.
Repent. Repent. Repent. Three times in three verses at the close of this chapter through Ezekiel, God tells the people of Israel to turn around. The NRSV gives us a bit of verbal variety — repent and turn — but not so the Hebrew. It is the same word every time. The drumbeat of Ezekiel’s words, insistent to us in this reading, are near-deafening if you’ve read all the way through to 18th chapter, where the call to repent occurs numerous times. Why?
Because this is the heartbeat of God.
“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?” (Ezek. 18:12) and again, “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live” (Ezek. 18:32).
I fear that when we, when I, read sections of Scripture that include God’s wrath, God’s punishment against sin, sections like these many chapters of Ezekiel, I might picture God delighting in those who suffer his punishment. “Ha ha, got you!” Maybe it is because I’m projecting up my own sentiments. If I see someone I don’t like suffer a defeat, I smirk, I inwardly celebrate. Got what was coming to you, huh sucker? I’m not proud of this, but it is true.
This is not the way of God. When God administers punishment for wickedness, which God does, this text reveals that God’s heart is grieved. There is no pleasure at all. Instead, he issues, and continues to issue incessantly, this call for repentance.
For the Israelites, idolatry is their issue. The corrupting worship of created gods lays the base of their departure. Idolatry. Not so much an issue here for us in contemporary times. Not too many idols standing post on the corners of our Main Streets. But to worship something other than God seems to be a rather human and not just an Israelite predilection. Insert here any number of things that take the place of your first love, that take your time, your money, your mental real estate. And that might be sermon enough to invite you prayerfully to consider where you are drawn away from God and how you need to turn back. To repent.
For even as God administers justice against wrong, God issues this call:
I will punish what needs to be punished, but as I do so I desire you hear this:
The way you have been living, the way of idolatry, the way of orienting your life toward something other than me, is full of death. I made you, I know you, my ways are designed to produce life for you and your community. Turn, oh please, turn to me and live.
All right, we might say. Compelled by the message, convicted of sin, we will. How?
“Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” (Ezek. 18:31).
Hmmm. Easier said than done. Can I just change myself? What if I’ve been caught in my particular idolatry for a while, and my neighbors have, my friends have. As many have discovered, self-help is often pretty unhelpful.
The good news is that God does not ask that they do it all by themselves. If we listen earlier in the prophecy, God says, “I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh (11:19); “I the Lord will answer those who come with the multitude of their idols” (Ezek. 14:4); “in order that I may take hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, all of whom are estranged from me through their idols” (Ezek. 14:5).
So, then, it is not so much that he is asking them to do their own heart transplant. God is just asking them to stop resisting what God already greatly desires to do, to bring about a change of life.
This is good news, but as we as Christians know, that it is not the full and explicit extent of God’s good news, not yet the embodiment of God’s good news. For God decided not just to tell us this good news but to demonstrate it.
Alongside Ezekiel today, we also read from Philippians 2. If anyone had the right to blame others for his suffering, it was Jesus. If anyone could claim to be totally without fault and yet suffering because of the actions of others, it was Jesus. And yet this is exactly what he did not do. He did not complain. He did not walk away from an administration of “justice” in which he had been unjustly caught. Instead, through fervent and wrestling prayer he was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Here is a vitally important point: Jesus wasn’t just some amazing guy. Jesus was and is God.
Is God fair? the Israelites ask and we might ask. The answer is no, but God is just, and just in a way that takes us by surprise. The death that follows sin (as Ezekiel says, the person who sins shall die; 18:20), that death God took upon himself. On the cross, God condemned sin (Rom. 8) and defeated death. And we know this to be true because after the cross, Jesus the Son of God was highly exalted, resurrected, and ascended in sovereignty to the right hand of God.
That sounds like the climatic ending of the story, and it is.
And it isn’t.
If Jesus paid it all, then why, you may ask, do I still mess up and others still mess up, and suffer the consequences of it? Sin and death are still around. Yes they are, painfully so, but not forever. For the day is drawing near. It is guaranteed to happen, for the victory has already been won, when all things, including idolatry and sin and death, will be put under his feet as the worthy sovereign lord who was willing to be trampled under the iniquity of us all.
In the meantime, he invites us to dinner.
As a Baptist turned Episcopalian, early on in my Anglican days I worried about the lack of an altar call in our services. You know, the moment when the preacher asks for people to come to Jesus. But a wise friend reminded me: We Episcopalians have an altar call every time we meet for worship. It’s called the Eucharist.
We share in the meal today that Christians have shared in since the night before Jesus died.
He invites us to this table in honesty. Allow yourself the freedom, for a moment at least, of forgetting about others and considering your own mess. Are there idols from which you need to turn away? Are you suffering the consequences of a life misaligned with the good ways of God? Confess, repent, which means surrender to what he already wants to do in you and through you.
He invites us also to this table in grace. There is no condemnation here. For as Paul says, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Who is the only one who can accuse you, who is the only one who has no sin, no culpability of his own? Only God, and God desires life, desires to justify, to make right, and it is God the Son who died, was raised, and now lives to intercede for you. The only One who could condemn you choose instead to condemn himself, and then broke the entire condemnation system so that no one would have to suffer it. We are all very welcome here.
He invites us to this table in renewal. This is a great mystery. We eat some wafers and drink some red liquid, and God meets us here. It might seem crazy, and yet so many of you know it’s real. We surrender to his new heart surgery in prayer and Scripture reading and fellowship and at this table day by day, week by week, as he patiently teaches and instructs us.
What good work in you might God start today by joining in this meal? How might he restore you and then use you to bring about the justice this messed-up world so desperately needs? Eucharist, confession, and repentance and personal restoration, do not result in quiet escapism. This is where we begin to change the world. But we can’t be about the business of renewal unless we are constantly renewed ourselves.
Praise be to God that the way of the Lord is unfair! He takes on himself what we for our sinfulness rightly deserved, and giving us what we could not create ourselves: righteousness, a new heart, and life abundant, now and evermore.
The Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler is associate rector of St. Mark’s, Geneva, Illinois, and associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College.