Ezekiel 18:1-20: Personal Responsibility

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.

< Ezekiel 17:1-24 | Elusive Allegory

Ezekiel 18:11-32 | Not Fair >

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One Response to Ezekiel 18:1-20: Personal Responsibility

  1. Robin September 9, 2014 at 8:35 am #

    God set the law in motion, and at no point in time has he changed the law. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

    The law given in the Old Testament was not a time-filler, something to occupy the Israelites until Jesus’ appearance in the flesh: it just was and still is.

    God is holy and there is no place for sin in his presence. Each one of us was sinful at birth (Psalm 51:5) and it is impossible for any of us to keep these laws on our own. God didn’t give us the law to taunt us over our inability to keep it. There is the law, there is the consequence of breaking it (Romans 6:23), and, without divine intervention, every last one of us will collect our wages. Because of our stubbornness, I really think God HAD to do things the way he did. He knew we’d have to go through all that misery in order for us to realize that we really are destitute and, the whole point all along, to notice him and “and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:27). He never wanted to ridicule us, only to seek him, find him, repent and turn.

    God is a just God. He plays by the rules –ALWAYS! He cannot break the law. In Exodus 20:5, when God said that he would punish the children for the sin of their fathers, was he being unfair?

    NO! Think ripples in a pond. Take a look at the ripples Abraham made. God promised him a son in his old age. Abraham and Sarah got tired of waiting for God and decided to speed things up by Abraham’s siring a child by Sarah’s slave (I don’t know what they would have done if Ishmael had been an Ishmaela…keep trying?) Because of Abraham’s impatience, even today there is unspeakable conflict and bloodletting between his descendants. Is this God’s fault?

    Newton’s 3rd Law: “For every action force, there is an equal and opposite reaction force.” Is this merely a physical law? No. When I sin, I am not the only one who suffers. Like Abraham, my sin today can have repercussions far into the future, affecting not only my descendants, but those of others as well. Sin is plain WRONG and its damage is not restricted to the one who committed it, nor would that make sense. For example, if I play with matches and light a piece of paper on fire next to the curtains, would it make sense for me to be angry with the house for burning down, just because I only MEANT to burn the paper? Let’s realize the far-reaching consequences of our personal sins and take responsibility for them. Sin and death are wholly our “birthright” (or, more fittingly, “birthWRONG”) and none of God’s.

    I praise God that there is ONE who walked my walk and did what I could never do. Jesus lived my life. He never broke one law, yet took the punishment for MY transgressions! What compassion, what dedication, what grace! “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer” (Romans 6:1, 2).

    Christians’ sins still result in deadly consequences and we will be held accountable for how we’ve used our time on earth: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).

    Lord, please help me to build on the foundation of Jesus Christ, not with hay, but with pure gold. I don’t want the work of my life to be burned up. I don’t want to be saved as one escaping through the flames. Please take my life here and now as a living sacrifice so that I will not shame you later when that day of judgment comes. Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name” (Psalm 86:11).

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