As Yourself | Proper 25

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 Say to the whole community of the Israelites: You must be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy.

15 You must not act unjustly in a legal case. Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly. 16 Do not go around slandering your people. Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed; I am the LORD. 17 You must not hate your fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your fellow Israelite strongly, so you don’t become responsible for his sin. 18 You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD. (CEB)

As Yourself

Leviticus isn’t a book we come across very often in the lectionary. It’s only used twice and, both times, it’s nearly the same text. The only other instance adds verses 9-14 to what we just read. I mean, we read the book of Numbers more than Leviticus (a grand total of 3 times in the regular weekly lections), and that’s the book that most people find downright impossible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, Well, I tried to read the Bible all the way through, but I got stuck at Numbers. Yet, the lectionary includes it more than Leviticus.

Part of our problem with Leviticus might be that it’s a very Jewish book. It’s full of stuff about the Law that some Christians view as mostly irrelevant, save for one or two specific proof-texts they might jump to. We like the prophets but, aside from the Ten Commandments, we Christians don’t typically care much for the law. And by that, I mean we don’t often read it or engage with it.

Yet, the Law is incredibly relevant. Any interpreter of the New Testament has to know the Law. Otherwise, they’ll miss the point of most of what’s said in the New Testament. Every Christian knows the words of Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matthew 19:19; 22:39) but he didn’t come up with it on his own. He got it from Leviticus 19. So did Paul, when he quoted those words in Romans 13:9, and Galatians 5:4. So did James, when he quoted them in James 2:8.

Leviticus 19 is part of what’s called the Holiness Code that was written for all the people of Israel, not just the priests. God tells Moses, “Say to the whole community of the Israelites: You must be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2 CEB). So, what does a holy life require? What does it look like? How do we define it?

There are, actually, a couple of options. Both are found in the Scriptures. The first option focuses on maintaining purity. It means we keep ourselves separate from the things that might pollute, whether it has to do with mud and blood, death and decay, or things that get in the way of proper ritual and the rites of religious life. This pollution can affect individuals and, then, pollute our community, so we have to keep it away from us. Holiness, defined this way, depends on fencing others out, keeping apart from those whose ways are judged less than holy, or simply whose being is judged less than holy.

This is the path of Ezra, who dissolved all the marriages of Israelite men to foreign women and made them send their foreign wives and the children born of them away (c.f. Ezra 10). They thought they could be holy again by getting rid of everything foreign that might pollute their people. Nehemiah did the same thing.

He says of those who married foreign women: “Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of various peoples; they couldn’t speak the language of Judah. So I scolded them and cursed them, and beat some of them, and pulled out their hair.” Sounds like a super swell guy, right? “I also made them swear a solemn pledge in the name of God, saying, ‘You won’t give your daughters to their sons in marriage, or take their daughters in marriage for your sons or yourselves. Didn’t Israel’s King Solomon sin on account of such women? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was well loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel. Yet foreign wives led even him into sin!’” (Neh. 13:24-26 CEB).

So, pulling a page out of Adam and Eve, Nehemiah blames the women for the fact that men chose to sin. (It honestly makes me roll my eyes every time). The idea was that, if they could separate themselves from the influence of foreign religions, practices, languages, and gods, then they would not be tempted to sin in the first place, therefore, they wouldn’t sin at all.

The second option for holiness focuses on crossing those very same boundaries that set people apart. It involves placing ourselves in the middle of the messiness so that we can call out unjust power structures, work to set wrongs to right, work at building deeply true relationships with those we consider “other,” and moving toward a right relationship with God. This is the path of Leviticus 19, which links holiness with seeking justice and demanding that we love our neighbor as our self.

It’s the path of Jesus who ate with publicly-known sinners, from tax-collectors to prostitutes. He called out the injustices of the religious power structures of his day. He stepped across the lines that those religious leaders and power brokers had so carefully constructed. And, instead of fencing out the marginalized, the rejected, the known sinners, the poor, the suffering, and the sick; Jesus went to them, healed them, accepted them, loved them, and made sure they knew that they were loved by God. In doing so, Jesus offered them the kingdom of Heaven.

Holiness is a word that properly defines God. God is holy, which means that God is many of the things mentioned about that first option of how to live out holiness. God is set apart. God is other, different. That’s why many Jews and Christians have walked the path of holiness that fences out what is impure or different from them.

But, the thing about God is that, when we try to neatly define what we think words like holiness should mean, God comes along and blurs those definitions until they break down, and are redefined to reflect what God actually means by them. In fact, eventually, God showed us God’s definition of holiness with something called the Incarnation. When it comes to holiness as God means it, it has nothing to do with staying separate.

God chose to be Immanuel: God With Us. God became a human being in the incarnation when the Son of God took on human flesh, was conceived, and born of a young Jewish woman named Mary. God chose to cross the boundaries of what fenced out pollution and sin for the exact purpose of living in the messiness, and the violence, and the despair, and the suffering of our world. God came down from heaven to be with us, and to call out the injustices of abusive power, of rampant greed, and of definitions of holiness that are a good deal less than holy.

You see, another word that properly defines God is love. We cannot have holiness apart from love. Apart from love, nothing is holy. We must love our neighbors.

Now, some try to escape this demand of showing love to everyone by narrowing the definition of neighbor to mean one’s own people. The whole of Leviticus 19:18 says, “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD,” (CEB).

So, if my neighbors are only my own people, then I only need to love people who look like me, believe like me, act like me, and think like me. That’s exactly the theology of white supremacists. And, I mention them because they exist and they’re getting more emboldened than they have been in a long time. It’s not something we can rightly ignore, or close our eyes and hope they’ll quietly slink back into their dark corner. They call themselves Christians. They love their neighbors as they define the word neighbor, which means white people. Clearly, they’ve never read Luke 10:25-37. That’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus expands the word neighbor to mean even our enemies and those who hate us.

Later in Leviticus 19, at verse 34, God demands that Israelites grant equal citizenship to immigrants in their land, and says they must love the immigrants as themselves. The demand to love our neighbor has no boundary line where we can feel safe to stop. Our neighbor is every person on planet Earth. We have no excuse for not loving everyone. We have no excuse for hating anyone.

So, what does loving others look like?

In one sense, it means that we work to create communities where every one of our neighbors can thrive. We break down the social barriers. We break down the economic barriers. We break down the religious barriers. We break down every barrier which separates us from others, which fences them out from communion with us. We work to ensure that our neighbors can share more fully in the life of our community.

You see, the call to holiness is defined around community that is just. It means favoritism is not shown to anyone, judgments are fair, we don’t bad-mouth or slander our neighbors, we don’t stand by while our neighbors are mistreated, we don’t hold hate for others in our hearts, we don’t take revenge or hold grudges. Loving our neighbor means that we treat each of our neighbors as we want to be treated—essentially, we have to put ourselves in their position and consider them.

That’s the ultimate test case, don’t you think? Would we be willing to trade places with the least of our neighbors? Are we willing to trade places with the poorest in our community, the weakest, the most marginalized and frowned upon? If we would hesitate to do so, it’s a sure sign that all is not yet rightly ordered in our community. It’s proof-positive that we have more work to do. This is the work to which we’re called as the church of Jesus Christ.

We can’t really love God and, at the same time, fail to love our neighbor any more than we can love our neighbor without loving God. The two go together, which is why Jesus called them the greatest two commandments: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself (c.f. Matthew 22:37-40). In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, there is no way to live out the holiness of God without benefiting our neighbors. There is no way to be holy as God is holy without crossing boundaries to live in solidarity and build true community with our neighbors. The way of life for one includes a way of life for all.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

The Things That Are God’s | Proper 24

Matthew 22:15-22

15 Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed. (CEB)

The Things That Are God’s

I don’t know many people who like paying taxes. I mean, yes, we all benefit from what taxes provide, but I don’t know anyone who appreciates how much money the government wastes and misuses. There have been studies released on that waste, and it’s kind of ugly.

Personally, I think that if God only asks for 10 percent, what’s the government to demand more than the creator of the universe? And, why make them so complicated?

Have you ever seen clergy taxes? The federal government can’t decide what to do with us clergy. The IRS says we’re employees, so we get a W-2. But the Social Security Administration says we’re self-employed, which means we have to pay the full 15.3% of self-employment tax ourselves in quarterly installments. So, I’m an employee and I’m self-employed for doing the same job.

For Jews, paying taxes paid to Caesar was a theological problem. If they paid taxes, then they were essentially complicit in the activities of the pagan Roman government which had occupied and annexed their previously independent Hasmonean Kingdom in 63 BCE.

The team of Pharisees and Herodians who ask Jesus this first question is an unlikely alliance. The Herodians were a priestly group whose power base in Israel was founded largely on an alliance with the occupying Roman government. The Pharisees, by contrast, were a lay group within Judaism who tried to obey the Law of Moses to the letter.

For the Pharisees, compromising or partnering with the pagan Romans would have been theologically unthinkable. Only a mutual distaste for Jesus could have brought these two parties together in an attempt to trap and discredit someone they saw as mutually problematic.

The exchange begins with a bit of flattery, which functions as a setup for the trick question that follows. The effect of their praise is to say, Okay mister smarty-pants, let’s see what you do with this one. The question has to do with the religious legality of paying taxes to the Roman emperor. For a quarter of a century, the Jews had been forced to pay a head tax to the Roman government in Roman currency. Some Jews rested easy with Roman rule and supported the tax. This group of supporters was in the minority, and probably included the Herodians.

Most citizens of Judah, however, reacted to the idea of paying money to the pagan emperor with distaste ranging from mild provocation to seething insurrection. In fact, when the tax was established in A.D. 6, there was a small-scale armed revolt. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the tax, which amounted to a denarius, was most often paid with the common denarius coin. This coin was minted with the image of Caesar Tiberius and carried the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus and high priest.”

The inscription, alone, was an offense to Jews who believed the Lord alone is God. Not to mention the fact that the coin had an image on it, which was quasi-forbidden within Judaism. So they had to pay a tax to their occupiers—the Romans—whom they hated, and they were forced to pay it with a Roman coin that claimed that the Roman Emperor was a god and high priest.

And the Romans wondered why that didn’t go over well.

So, to raise the question about paying taxes to the emperor was to pull the scab off of a political and theological wound, which is exactly what Jesus’ questioners did. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” They intended to put Jesus into a precarious position.

If Jesus were to say, No, according to the Law of God it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then the Roman government would move in on him as a dangerous political agitator and enemy of the Roman State. Then again, if Jesus were to say, Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then he would have lost all credibility with many of the people who paid the tax, but did so against their will because they saw the tax as an illegal act of an oppressor government and a moral affront to their religion.

This was a great question for the Pharisees and Herodians to ask because it seemed to be a perfect catch 22. They could discredit Jesus with either answer he gave. This was also an important question for the people to consider, and the people in the crowds were listening. What would Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, say?

Jesus was aware of the intended treachery of his questioners, and he cleverly sidestepped their trap. First, he asked them to show him one of the tax coins, which means that he didn’t have one of the coins on his person, but at least one of his questioners did! (Brilliant move. First point goes to Jesus).

He asked, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In other words, Jesus says, The coin has Caesar’s image and inscription on it, so give the filthy thing back to Caesar.

There are two ways to understand Jesus’ statement: a mild way and a more radical way. The mild way interprets Jesus’ words to mean the tax is not the issue. You pay the tax with Roman coins, and they bear the emperor’s image and belong to the emperor. So give the emperor his little coins back and get on about the weightier issue of rendering your lives to God. The coin is created in the emperor’s image, but you are created in the image of God; so give the stupid little coin to the emperor, and give your whole self to the God who owns you.

The more radical way is that Jesus refuses to answer the question and actually turns the tables on his examiners, showing them up as two-faced hypocrites. The question they posed to Jesus was designed to allow Jesus two equally bad alternatives. In effect they ask Jesus, “Are you a foolish, uncompromising revolutionary whose allegiance to the kingdom of heaven is actually a political revolution in disguise, or are you a smooth-talking street preacher who stirs people up with persuasive speech of God’s majesty, but who underneath advocates a policy of “let’s just get along” with the Roman Gentile pigs?

Jesus responds to this trick question with a tricky maneuver of his own. When he asks them to show him a tax coin, they unsuspectingly reach into their own purses and withdraw the evidence that exposes them—not him—as deceptive and hypocritical compromisers with Rome. They are the ones carrying around Caesar’s money, not Jesus. They are the ones who have the emperor’s image in their pocketbooks. They are the ones who have already bought into the pagan system.

In this more radical interpretation, Jesus’ words mean, that everybody has to decide between Caesar and God. No one can serve two masters. The Pharisees and Herodians seem to have already made their decision by what they carried in their pockets. They had forged their convenient compromise between their duty to God and the Roman State. But what about their obligation to God? Jesus says, “Render to God what belongs to God.” Choose this day whom you will serve.

What Jesus suggests is that, although we may have to live under this or that Caesar, and we may have to pay this or that tax, we ourselves never belong to Caesar. We belong, body and soul, to the Living God, and we are to render to God what belongs to God’s. To render our lives to God means to give up our own will and desires for the will and desires of God. It means uncompromising obedience to the God who created us, and created all things.

Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s. What God desires is us, but we have to give ourselves to God through loving obedience. Part of the way we do that is by recognizing that we belong to God.

We define ourselves in many ways and are usually proud of those definitions. It’s usually pretty easy to spot a Cameron Crazy (a Duke Basketball fan, for those of you who aren’t sports nuts), and you’d better not mistake a Buckeye for a Wolverine unless you’ve got a death wish. People take pride in being American, Canadian, being British, German, Irish, or Polish. What do we think of as our most defining characteristic? Belonging to God is the only defining characteristic that really matters: not the color of our skin, not the work we do, not which city we’re from, not which state we’re from, not our national citizenship, not our level of education, not our annual income.

God is love, and God’s love is our most defining characteristic, both to ourselves and to others. There will come a day when all of humankind will stand before their God and creator, and the only characteristic that will matter at all will be that we belong to God. Once we recognize that we belong to God, we begin to recognize that everything we have belongs to God as well.

Give to God the things that belong to God. What does God want? All of us. Every last bit of every one of us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


A Stone Rejected | Proper 22

Matthew 21:33-46

33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. 34 When it was time for harvest, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to collect his fruit. 35 But the tenant farmers grabbed his servants. They beat some of them, and some of them they killed. Some of them they stoned to death.

36 “Again he sent other servants, more than the first group. They treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

38 “But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.’ 39 They grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

40 “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?”

41 They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the scriptures, The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this, and it’s amazing in our eyes? 43 Therefore, I tell you that God’s kingdom will be taken away from you and will be given to a people who produce its fruit. 44 Whoever falls on this stone will be crushed. And the stone will crush the person it falls on.”

45 Now when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard the parable, they knew Jesus was talking about them. 46 They were trying to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, who thought he was a prophet. (CEB)

A Stone Rejected

One of the keys to understanding any story is the setting. We know that Star Wars took place, “Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” We know that J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, took place in Middle Earth. In fact, the more we know about the story’s setting, the better we understand what’s taking place and why. That’s why books often include maps.

At least the last ten novels I’ve read included maps of the world in which the stories take place. One book, The Martian, even included a map of Mars. It’s helpful to see what the landscape of the story looks like, whether the world is real or imagined. Setting also includes things like social, religious, political, and historical context. These are all integral to understanding the story.

It’s the same with any text of Scripture. The setting of the book places it in a specific context that can help us understand what’s being said. And, speaking of context, most Scripture passages are related to what comes before and after. So, knowing the context of the verses within a book also helps us to understand the message.

The setting of Jesus’ parable is Jerusalem after the triumphal entry where he was riding on a donkey and hailed as the Son of David. The whole city was stirred up over this incident (Mt. 21:10). Jesus went into the Temple where he pushed over the tables used for currency exchange, and threw out the people who were buying and selling things there. It was an act that went against what those in charge of the Temple complex allowed. With these actions, Jesus told everyone that the religious leaders were wrong.

The chief priests and legal experts immediately confronted Jesus and asked him where he got his authority to do what he was doing. And Jesus had the gall to tell the chief priests and legal experts that tax collectors and prostitutes who believed John the Baptist’s message and changed their hearts and lives were entering the kingdom of heaven before them.

It’s safe to say that contention was in the air.

It’s important to note that the parables of Jesus which answer the challenge to his authority by the chief priests and legal experts are directed toward the leadership, not to the Jewish people as a whole. Sadly, we have to admit that some Christians have interpreted this as polemic against all Jews, suggesting this shows God’s rejection of the Jewish people. But those who have done this are wrong. That’s called antisemitism, and it’s wrong. Jesus was a Jew; he wasn’t anti-himself. The line Jesus draws is within Judaism, not between Jews and Christians.

The parable of the vineyard is a reflection on the text from Isaiah which we read earlier (Isaiah 5:1-7). Jewish thought identified the vineyard with the Temple. So, Jesus’ parable ties in with Isaiah’s message of Israel rejecting the prophets. I think it’s helpful for us to look past Isaiah 5:7, because it gives us a better idea of what the prophets were preaching against.

Isaiah says, “The vineyard of the LORD of heavenly forces is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! Doom to those who acquire house after house, who annex field to field until there is no more space left and only you live alone in the land” (Isa. 5:7-8 CEB).

From Amos to Isaiah, one of the primary messages of the prophets was the responsibility of the leaders and wealthy (and the wealthy were almost always the leaders) to take care of the poor. They preached against exploitation. And that exploitation, in a largely agrarian economy, included crowding others out by gaining so much of the land that others didn’t have any.

So, the parable tells us about a vineyard that God planted, and the tenants to whom he leased the land. When the harvest was due, he sent his servants to collect the fruit, but the tenants mistreated the servants. In a sense, they elbowed the servants out. They made no room. They held on for themselves what wasn’t theirs to keep. Another group of servants comes and suffer the same mistreatment. Then, the landowner sent his son, thinking the tenants would surely respect his own son and give him what belonged to him.

Instead, the tenants killed the son, again, thinking they would keep for themselves what didn’t belong to them. So Jesus asks the chief priests and legal experts what they think the landowner will do when he comes. Their response is that he’ll destroy the wicked tenants and lend the vineyard out to tenants who’ll give him his fruit when it’s due. In judging the wicked tenants this way, the chief priests and legal experts pronounced judgment upon themselves.

Jesus uses allegory to get his message across in a way that disarms his opponents. It’s the same thing the Prophet Nathan did to David when he asked the king to judge a situation about a wealthy man who stole a poor man’s beloved lamb. When David pronounced his judgment that the rich man had to pay the lamb back seven-fold, Nathan told David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7). Nathan was really talking about how David conspired to murder Uriah and take Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, as his own. David pronounced judgment upon himself. Then, Nathan revealed David’s sin.

After telling the parable and letting the chief priests and legal experts judge themselves, Jesus interprets his own parable using Scripture from Psalm 118. Verse 42 quotes verses 22-23 of the Psalm, “The stone rejected by the builders is now the main foundation stone! This has happened because of the LORD; it is astounding in our sight!” (CEB). In fact, part of the same Psalm, verse 26, was shouted by the crowds as Jesus entered Jerusalem when they said, “Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21:9 CEB).

Psalm 118 is the Psalm of Praise that’s sung at Passover to celebrate God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. So, when Jesus interprets his own parable with parts of Psalm 118, there are layers of meaning: praise for God’s deliverance, recalling Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and hints of Jesus’ own coming rejection and violent death which is our own redemption.

There’s another scriptural reference to the stone, and Jesus brings it into play here, too. Isaiah 8:13-15 says, “It is the LORD of heavenly forces whom you should hold sacred, whom you should fear, and whom you should hold in awe. God will become a sanctuary—but he will be a stone to trip over and a rock to stumble on for the two houses of Israel; a trap and a snare for those living in Jerusalem. Many of them will stumble and fall, and be broken, snared, and captured,” (CEB).

These verses from Isaiah refer to the coming invasion of Israel and Judah by the more powerful Assyrian Empire to the north. Isaiah spoke of the invasion as judgment on the Kingdom of Israel for its social injustices when God expected justice and righteousness, but saw bloodshed and heard cries of distress. Isaiah preached a similar message as his predecessor, Amos, who accused the wealthy of selling “the innocent for silver, and those in need for a pair of sandals” (Amos 2:6 CEB).

So, the parable of the vineyard’s wicked tenants is bookended by passages about judgment from two sections of Isaiah. And that judgment is against the wealthy and powerful of Israel who didn’t know justice or mercy. Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders kicks into high gear with his turning over tables in the Temple and healing of the blind and lame who came into the Temple to find Jesus there. The chief priests and elders demanded to know with what authority Jesus did these things. Jesus demanded to know why the chief priests and legal experts weren’t paying attention.

The words of the prophets had been spoken long ago, but the leaders hadn’t learned from the past. The suffering were still suffering with no one to show them mercy. Those who lived each day in poverty had no justice and no way to improve their lot because the greed of wealth had ensnared the rich. The outcast, the abused, the poor, the vulnerable: they continued to suffer. And the Temple system that the wealthy men of the day controlled worked in such a way that the poor couldn’t afford to buy the required offerings.

That’s why Jesus tells the chief priests and legal experts that the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of Heaven ahead of them. The rich and powerful might think they’re blessed because of their wealth, but the poor and weak are the ones whom God favors. The reason being, that the chief priests and legal experts had failed to produce the fruits of the kingdom by failing to do justice and show mercy. That message of justice and mercy is what almost all the prophets proclaimed.

So, how do we apply this to ourselves? We listen to Jesus. We remember that we’re called to ministry. We do what we can to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who came to set us free from bondage and brokenness. We have a responsibility to produce the fruits of the kingdom in our lives. When we do, Jesus becomes our sanctuary instead of a stone for stumbling.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


Do What Is Right | Proper 21

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

1 The LORD’s word came to me: 2 What do you mean by this proverb of yours about the land of Israel: “When parents eat unripe grapes, the children’s teeth suffer”? 3 As surely as I live, says the LORD God, no longer will you use this proverb in Israel! 4 All lives are mine; the life of the parent and the life of the child belong to me. Only the one who sins will die.

25 But you say, “My Lord’s way doesn’t measure up.” Listen, house of Israel, is it my ways that don’t measure up? Isn’t it your ways that don’t measure up? 26 When those who do the right thing turn from their responsible ways and act maliciously, they will die because of it. For their malicious acts they will die. 27 And when the wicked turn from their wicked deeds and act justly and responsibly, they will preserve their lives. 28 When they become alarmed and turn away from all their sins, they will surely live; they won’t die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, “My Lord’s way doesn’t measure up.” Is it my ways that don’t measure up? Isn’t it your ways that don’t measure up, house of Israel? 30 Therefore, I will judge each of you according to your ways, house of Israel. This is what the LORD God says. Turn, turn away from all your sins. Don’t let them be sinful obstacles for you. 31 Abandon all of your repeated sins. Make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Why should you die, house of Israel? 32 I most certainly don’t want anyone to die! This is what the LORD God says. Change your ways, and live! (CEB)

Do What Is Right

Life would be a lot simpler if the Bible were a book that spoke with one united voice. But it doesn’t. It’s a collection of books that speaks with many voices, and those voices can contradict and disagree with each other at times. It’s kind of like an old-fashioned Facebook conversation. Something gets said, and not all the parties who decide to post their thoughts are in agreement.

For example, Isaiah says, “…they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools,” (Isa. 2:4 CEB). But Joel reverses that sentiment and says, “Beat the iron tips of your plows into swords and your pruning tools into spears,” (Joel 3:10 CEB). Then, Micah (4:3) reverses Joel’s thought by repeating Isaiah.

In Ezekiel, we’re told that the people were complaining about their state by quoting a proverb that highlighted the unfairness of God’s ways because they believed God punished children for the sins of their parents. In fact, they were living that very nightmare in exile. The prophets before them had warned the earlier generations of what might come through their continued disobedience, and then it all became reality. Previous generations had not been faithful to God’s covenant, and now the current generation was suffering when they hadn’t done anything wrong.

And they were right, I suppose, to a point. They were right that they hadn’t been the ones to break the covenant that caused the exile. And, they were right about the idea that God might punish children for the sins of their parents. It’s even written in Scripture that this kind of thing happens.

Exodus 20:5-6 says, “…I, the LORD your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments,” (CEB). Numbers 14:18 says, “’The LORD is very patient and absolutely loyal, forgiving wrongs and disloyalty. Yet he doesn’t forgo all punishment, disciplining the grandchildren and great-grandchildren for their ancestors’ wrongs,’” (CEB). Deuteronomy 5:9-10 repeats the Exodus text verbatim.

So, this proverb about children suffering for what their parents had done came from a very Scriptural idea. And we can empathize with them about the unfairness of such a thing. Modern examples of children suffering for the sins of their parents happen all the time. If I were to go to jail, my children would suffer. They’d feel embarrassed, probably disgraced. Other kids in the schools might make fun of them if they found out. They might have to move or make any number of major adjustments to their lives due to loss of family income and housing. It would be a mess.

So, we can understand their thought process. We can see why the children of exile in Babylon would have quoted this proverb, and maybe looked at their parents’ and grandparents’ and previous generations with some degree of annoyance, disdain, and blame for their situation. They saw themselves as innocent sufferers for crimes they didn’t commit, and came to the conclusion that God’s ways are unfair.

There is no question that the present and future are always tied to the past. They’re in conversation with the past, and they result from the past. The actions of previous generations affect the situation of future generations. That’s one of the reasons why I care about social justice, racial and gender equality, and environmental issues. I want my children (and potential further generations from them) to thrive, to be able to live in peace and prosperity and not lack for anything. I want to leave the world in a better state than when I came into it, not worse.

I think the reason Ezekiel speaks out against this proverb, despite it’s apparent accuracy and Biblical root, is that many of those who were children of the exile—the generation casting blame on previous generations and calling God’s ways unfair—were not doing much more than casting blame and shrugging their shoulders. While a healthy understanding of the past is a good thing, it can lead us to have an unhealthy understanding of our present. It’s unhealthy to throw up our arms and tell ourselves there’s nothing we can do about whatever we’re facing because people messed everything up years ago.

That’s kind of like saying we shouldn’t bother to recycle now because the environment’s already a disaster. Or, suggesting that we shouldn’t bother working for racial justice and reconciliation because slavery and Jim Crow already happened.

The exiled Jews still had a choice in their own behavior that wasn’t tied to how the previous generations acted. After making it clear that all lives belong to God, whether it’s the parent or the child, Ezekiel tells us that only the person who sins will die. Now, first, this isn’t physical death. It’s the kind of death that occurs when we separate ourselves from God who is the source of life itself. What should any of us expect if we cut ourselves off from the source of life? Death seems like an obvious result.

Ezekiel reminds us that we are responsible for our own actions and inactions. It’s almost too bad that the lectionary cuts off verses 5-24, because they develop this idea by giving us the example of a righteous parent who acts justly and responsibly, doesn’t give their attention to idols, doesn’t sleep with other people’s spouses, doesn’t cheat anyone, fulfills their obligations, doesn’t rob people, but gives food to the hungry and clothes to the naked. The parent does everything right. They settle things fairly and follow God’s regulations, laws, and they act faithfully. Ezekiel says that parent will live.

But, suppose that parent has a child who is a little hellion and the child does everything wrong: the opposite of what their parent did. God asks the question, should this child live? The answer is no, and the child’s blood will be on their own head.

Then, say that hellion child had a child who, like their grandparents, did everything right. God says the grandchild won’t die for their parent’s guilt. The grandchild will live.

So, in an apparent reversal of Exodus 20:5-6 and the like, Ezekiel 18:20 says, “Only the one who sins will die. A child won’t bear a parent’s guilt, and a parent won’t bear a child’s guilt. Those who do right will be declared innocent, and the wicked will be declared guilty,” (CEB).

Then, Ezekiel gets into repentance. If the wicked turn away from their sin and do what’s right, they’ll live. None of their sins will be held against them. Similarly, if those who were doing right engage in the same detestable practices that the wicked committed, they’ll die.

God says, “Therefore, I will judge each of you according to your ways, House of Israel,” (Ezekiel 18:30a CEB). I think most of us would agree that that seems pretty fair. If we’re all culpable for our own sins and no one else’s, that’s pretty fair. Now, when most people hear this part, they focus in on the word judgment. That’s what we’re all scared of, right? Being judged for the way we’ve lived because, heck, nary a one of us are perfect. Some of us have done some pretty terrible things, so the idea of judgment feels intimidating.

What we tend to gloss over when we can only focus on judgment, is the merciful grace of God splattered all over the pages here. Yes, God will judge us according to our ways, but we have the opportunity to repent. We can make changes in our lives now that free us from the past, not only the past of previous generations, but our own previous bad behavior and horrible choices. God is rooting for us in this whole thing called life. We’re told, “I most certainly don’t want anyone to die! This is what the LORD God says. Change your ways, and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32 CEB).

The people complained that God’s ways weren’t fair. If you think about it, that’s absolutely ludicrous. Who would want to be treated fairly by God? Fair is measure-for-measure, tit-for-tat, good-for-good, evil-for-evil, all in equal amounts. We give and we get. I don’t want to be treated fairly by God because I’m just not that good of a person.

God knew that this pitiful human race that God created needed to be treated so incredibly unfairly that it could never be considered right. That’s why God sent us Jesus. God changed the game entirely with the incarnation, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not only does God offer us repentance, God came down from heaven to be with us. God tipped the scales so unfairly in our direction that no one can be untouched by God’s love and grace. God went far beyond fairness. Instead God showed us how completely in love with each one of us God is.

When God tells us to do what is right, it’s fairly simple. We’ve heard it before. We love God. We love others. And through our successes and failures at doing those two things, we get to rely on the utter unfairness of a God who rigged the whole blasted game in our favor.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!