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A call for repentance
Sunday school lesson for the week of August 16, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Ezekiel 18:1-13, 30-32
The prophet Ezekiel’s activity was between the years 593 B.C., when he received his call to prophesy, and 571 B.C., about 22 years later. Evidently, Ezekiel was married as the death of his wife is reported in Ezekiel 24:18, and at the time of his call was living in exile in Babylon. Thus, Ezekiel prophesied to the people of Israel while they were in Babylonian exile.
Along with Jeremiah, his contemporary, Ezekiel was likewise concerned for the Temple. But Ezekiel's connection to the Temple was through his role as one of the elite priests responsible for making sacrifices and performing the holiest acts of worship. Scholars report that, for Ezekiel, ritual purity was of utmost importance. Only by adherence to dietary laws and other laws of holiness did Ezekiel think that one could properly come before God to worship. In addition, to these laws, however, Ezekiel focused on other equally important laws that related to social justice. For Ezekiel, both types of laws demonstrated that a person was aligned with the intentions of God. And if that were not the case, God would not continue to be present and the Temple in Jerusalem would not stand.
There are two background scriptures to today's lesson – Ezekiel 18 and Proverbs 21:2-15. Through these two passages are quite different they share two important features in common. First, Ezekiel quotes a popular proverb that could have been in the Book of Proverbs. According to scholars, he does so, however, to argue against it. The proverb reads, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 28:2).
Second, the Book of Proverbs itself is largely a collection of wisdom sayings that give advice about successful living. However, the particular Proverbs passage we are dealing with here speaks, like Ezekiel 18, of what is “right” or “righteous.” On this point, the wisdom material speaks about righteousness in terms of enduring justice for the lowly. But, as scholars attest, the primary characteristic of the righteous is humility before God. On the other hand, the wicked are exactly the opposite and operate out of pride (Proverbs 21:4). And it is that pride that produces violence (Proverbs 21:7).
Ezekiel's message in our text was provoked by a popular complaint that the current generation in Israel was suffering because of the sins of their parents. The complaint was registered in a proverb: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge” ( v.2).
As scholars make clear, the same proverb is quoted in Jeremiah 31:29, and it seems to be repeated widely during and after the period of Judah’s national demise.
In this lesson, we will consider Ezekiel’s response to the proverb. He simply said it wasn’t true. And to make his point as clear as possible he told a parable about three men, father, son and grandson.
The first is a righteous man, and as a consequence, of his righteousness he lives (v.5-9).
Next, we see this man’s son. He does not live up to his father’s standards, but commits evil. The result is that he dies (v.10-13). Now, it is important to note that this second man is not granted life automatically because his father was a righteous man. Rather, it is because he himself is wicked that causes his death.
Moving on, we see that this third man does not die because of his father's wickedness. No! It is because of his own righteousness that he lives.
Thus, we are told that contrary to the popular Proverb, one generation does not suffer because of the sins of another, nor is one generation rewarded because of the sins of another. According to scholars, Ezekiel is saying that there is no carryover of reward and punishment from one generation to the next. Each generation – each individual – lives or dies as a result of its own righteousness or iniquity. But this is not the whole story!
Are your sins your own?
In real life, we are aware that our sins are not just our own. The whole community, and all humankind, shares then. We see this clearly in the way the sins of parents are shared by their children. We wish this were not the case. The Old Testament itself sometimes speaks of successive generations experiencing punishment for the sins of another generation. A scholars remind us, this makes sense theologically in that the Old Testament presents a series of collective punishments and does not focus primarily on individuals and their good or evil deeds as the sole cause of blessing or punishment. An example passage is Psalm 79:8 where the present generation suffers for the sins of their ancestors. The prayer of the psalmist is that this not be do. The psalmist prays, “Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors.”
As has been pointed out, this struggle between corporate and individual responsibility appears in a song by Bruce Springsteen titled “Long Time Coming.” Springsteen tells the story of a man struggling to be the husband and father he wants to be. A crucial part of the story was the man’s experience with his own father. He recalls that when he was a child his dad was a stranger who did not live with him. The man realizes that his father's problem with commitment has affected him, indeed scarred him, and he wishes things to be different for his children. Furthermore, the man who is now a father himself wants his children to live free of his mistakes. If he could make one wish, “It’d be that your mistakes will be your own / that your sins will be your own.” Ezekiel 18 gives the promise that this man’s wish will be a reality for the people of Judah.
Now, this is important! The proverb, “the parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” excused Ezekiel’s generation of responsibility for the fall of Judah and placed the blame on previous generations. Ezekiel’s message here can be taken as an effort to counteract this attitude of irresponsibility. If we understand the context of Ezekiel’s response to the proverb, we can affirm his message. Essentially, Ezekiel is telling the generation of the Exile that whether they lived or died depended upon themselves and not upon the legacy they had received from the past.
As scholars make clear, this sense of collective guilt and punishment is healthy in that no one is completely responsible for his or her own sins or suffering. On the other hand, however, the idea that the children’s teeth are set on edge because the parents have eaten sour grapes can be a cynical excuse to overlook one’s own sinfulness. As I have already suggested, Ezekiel speaks in part to thus tendency.
Repentance is the issue
Ezekiel teaches that not only is one’s living and dying not determined by the behavior of the parents, it is also not determined irrevocably by one’s previous behavior. Verse 21 states that if a wicked person turns from his/her wickedness and lives righteously, he/she will live. However, if a righteous person turns from his/her virtue and sins, he/she will die (v.24).
The point is that Ezekiel is issuing a call for repentance, and this is the heart of our lesson. In the final verses, Ezekiel states that the people of God are in charge of their own futures. They may have success and blessing or tragedy and hardship depending on how they respond to God. For sure, God wants to do good for them as he declares in verse 32, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone.” Thus, the last word God gives through Ezekiel on this matter is a charge to the people of Judah to “Turn, then and live.”
Scholars remind us that “turn” could also be translated “repent.” To repent is to turn from one way and go another. So Ezekiel declares that turning toward God is the key to life and health.
But, as scholars clarify, it should be said that Ezekiel’s words are true for his audience, but the issue is more complicated for other people at other times. For instance, suffering is much more complicated than is indicated in Ezekiel 18. Nevertheless, Ezekiel’s message is what we all need to hear at times. We can become so wrapped up in communal sin that we fail to see our own need to repent.
Ezekiel’s main command to the people is “to get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” (v. 31). And the new heart Ezekiel imagines for the people has such an orientation toward God’s presence that it lives in ways consistent with God’s holiness.
The importance of repentance can be seen in the gospel story. John the Baptist came proclaiming a baptism of repentance (Mark 1:4). Then Jesus himself began his ministry by declaring, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come; repent and believe in the good news” (1:15).
The meaning of righteous
As Ezekiel talks about individual reward and punishment, he outlines what it means to be “righteous” (Ezekiel 18:5-9). In the Old Testament, the term is often understood as a description of someone who is morally pure, who does certain things according to the law or a moral code. Ezekiel seems to be in full agreement here as he characterizes the righteous person as one who does what is lawful and right (v.5). Following this statement, the prophet lists certain acts of righteousness. And Ezekiel’s list is similar to the lists of other prophets we have studied – not committing adultery, not stealing, and performing acts of compassion are among the characteristics of the righteous. Ezekiel also adds certain characteristics that are distinctly priestly, related to ritual purity.
Scholars then point out that as good as all these actions and character features are, the idea that one can be righteous through human obedience seems at odds with the New Testament’s insistence that righteousness comes only through faith (Romans 3:21-26).
The scholars go on to point out that a careful reading of Ezekiel 18:5-9 will reveal that the prophet dies not actually say that right actions “make” a person righteous. Rather, these are the things a righteous person “does.” Indeed, Ezekiel gives the list of actions and then says of the one who does them, “such a one is righteous” (18:9).
For the Old Testament, righteousness is a characteristic of God; humans merely share in God’s righteousness as a gift. Psalm 72 is an example. The psalmist prays, “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.” Likewise, humans are righteous because they enter into a right relationship with God who alone is righteous. In Psalm 143:2, the psalmist states, “for no one living is righteous before you.” However, Ezekiel stresses the important point that those who are righteous will inherently act in ways that are consistent with the righteousness of God.