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!