Ezekiel and God’s purposes (May 23, 2021)

Uniform Lesson for May 23, 2021
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Ezekiel 18:1-9, 30-32

We all bear collective responsibility for the sins of our forebears (think chattel slavery), and our great-grandchildren will undoubtedly suffer because of some of the sins we are now committing (think climate change). This communal perspective on sin is built into the warp and woof of biblical thinking — see, for example, Exodus 34:7, which speaks of “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children.” Sometimes God’s people try to use this truth as a way to ameliorate their own culpability regarding present sins by claiming that they don’t themselves participate in racism, or that they treat all people with civility and respect. So, the courageous prophet steps up, as Ezekiel did during the time of exile, saying: “This judgment from God is not about what your grandfather or great-grandmother did or didn’t do. God is judging God’s people on the basis of present actions, which are matters of life and death.” Get ready. Ezekiel, God’s prophet, is coming. And he’s coming at you, and at me, right now!

Ezekiel 18:1-4 — Sour grapes

You may have heard one definition of heresy: a truth pressed too far. The same might be said about the parable Ezekiel quotes: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” There is deep truth in this parable. Many of the sins of past generations continue to sow their seeds in present generations (through genetics, prejudices and generational wealth and poverty). But when the reality of such communal sin and its consequences is used as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility for action or inaction on present injustices and idolatries, then this truth as been pressed too far, and Ezekiel’s coming at us.

I might amend Ezekiel’s words slightly by saying: “This proverb shall no more be used for this purpose and in this way by you in Israel, and the church.” But prophets have a way of pushing language to the breaking point as a way of getting our attention (“If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off,” Matthew 5:30). I believe that is what Ezekiel, as God’s spokesperson, is up to here.

No longer, he seems to say, can you dodge your own personal responsibility by laying all the problems on former generations. God, alive and moving in the present, is holding all of us accountable for what we do or don’t do to participate in God’s just and righteous reign. As Ezekiel puts it, in God’s voice: “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 will die.” No passing the buck. No blaming others. We are either working with God and God’s purposes, or we are not.

Ezekiel 18:5-9 — Naughty or nice

After we’ve gotten past the opening parable, the next hurdle to application might be the specifics of Ezekiel’s list. Some require little translation: “Do not oppress anyone.” Others require some work: “If he does not eat upon the mountains” (probably addressing improper worship rather than high-altitude picnics!) or “does not … approach a woman during her menstrual period” (reflecting Ezekiel’s male-oriented and priestly perspective on what is clean and unclean). Ezekiel here (as the Torah does in Leviticus 19) wants us to examine all of our lives and responsibilities regarding sins of injustice (not feeding the hungry or clothing the naked) and sins of idolatry (worshipping idols, whether in the sanctuary or the marketplace). As with any good prayer of confession, this list leaves no area of our lives off-limits for God’s judgment (including such topics as lending and interest, which many might label secular versus sacred). It might be good for any group studying this passage to translate this list into sins of commission and omission closer to home. Ezekiel’s list is not being heard if it doesn’t bite.

Ezekiel 18:30-32 — The third move

If we are brave enough to make it through Ezekiel’s first move (regarding personal responsibility) and second move (regarding comprehensive liabilities), then we are more than ready for his final move (regarding repentance). Ezekiel’s goal is not to leave us wallowing in our guilt or despairing of any future, but rather to give us a real chance at new life and life abundant. Note the imperative verbs that build toward the end of our lesson: “Repent!” “Cast away!” “Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” “Turn, then, and live!” Like a later prophet, Ezekiel comes not to condemn, but to save (John 3:17).

For discussion
What are the helps and the hazards of Ezekiel’s single-minded focus on individual (versus generational) responsibility?

RICHARD BOYCE is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.

Given that many of our congregations continue to conduct Bible study and Sunday school classes virtually, we would like to make some of our resources normally accessible only to subscribers more widely available. Our commentaries on the Presbyterian Women Horizons Bible study and the Standard Uniform lessons are normally found in print or behind the paywall on our website. For a limited time, you may access them online and share the links to class participants at no cost. We would ask only that if you able, you would consider a donation to the Presbyterian Outlook so that we can continue to produce these resources. We give thanks for you and your ministry, especially in these challenging times.