The quality of an individual Christian’s engagement with God
will then be reflected in his or her concern
to enhance the life of the church as a community.
— David Peterson (Engaging With God)
A seditious proverb was being tossed around the exilic community:
The parents have eaten sour grapes,|
and the children’s teeth are set on edge. (v. 2, NRSV)
It looks harmless on the surface, but God used Ezekiel to challenge it strongly. This proverb was actually a slanderous comment aimed at the apparently unjust actions of God.
Ancient cultures often believed that their deity would visit the sins of the parents on the children. While there are some scriptures that hint at this doctrine within Judaism, God portrays himself as going against the grain. Take the first commandment for example:
I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing the children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:5-6 NRSV)
The emphasis here is not on God punishing the children, it’s on the contrast. His mercy trumps judgment by three orders of magnitude.
The problem with this ancient belief in generational punishment is that it can quickly annul any sense of personal responsibility. The exilic Jews were saying that they were being unfairly punished for the sins of their ancestors. In essence: “I didn’t do it!”
At its worst, this view can lead to a repudiation of personal responsibility. “Since I’m being punished for something I didn’t do, why bother acting good at all?”
. . .
In Ezekiel 18, God calls his people back to personal responsibility. He sums up his message well in v. 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. (NRSV)
In the words of Blind Willie Johnson: “It’s nobody’s fault but mine.”
. . .
In the next post I’ll look at the option of repentance that is held out in the second half of chapter 18. Here I wanted to look at what Yahweh considered important:
- Don’t worship other Gods: This is important. Even though the community was in exile, away from their temple, they were still required to be faithful to their God. God had not abandoned the faithful, even in exile.
- Don’t be sexually immoral: The commands here are closely tied to the former warning against idolatry. The sexual ethics of Israel that are so painstakingly recorded in Leviticus are not the Freudian inventions of a reproductively-fixated deity. They were ways of setting Israel apart from the gross sexual immorality that marked pagan worship.
- Be honest with your finances: Nothing has changed. After idolatry and adultery, money is the next leading temptation.
- Be generous to the poor: One of the interesting features of Judaism was this emphasis. This virtue was rooted in their history: they were slaves in Egypt, therefore they were to be kind and generous with the poor in their community. Can we do less today?
- Promote justice: God is not unjust. He was not punishing the exilic community for their ancestor’s sins: he was judging them for their sins. In the same way that God is just, we are to be just in everything we do.
- Live by God’s law: This was a catch-all phrase to remind the people to follow the Law that God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai.
. . .
Things have changed a lot since Jesus died. We cannot blindly apply Old Testament injunctions to our lives, without recognizing how Jesus lived a perfect life and took our place before God’s judgment. We are not saved by doing good things. We do not keep our Christian membership current by doing good things. We are saved by faith, unequivocally.
That being said, God’s values have not changed. In light of what Jesus has done for us, why wouldn’t we want to make him happy?
. . .
Lord God, remind me again of the things that please and displease you. Help me to live a life of grateful surrender. In Jesus’ name, Amen.