Wayne Parker “was talking last week with a professor friend of (his) at (a) local university. He teaches a freshman level chemistry class and told (Wayne) about a phone call he had received from a parent of one of his students. This mother immediately started in on him about how inordinately tough he was on his students, and that he was obviously expecting too much out of freshmen right out of high school.
“Her daughter, she said, was a whiz at science and had been a straight-A student in high school and now had a ‘C’ in his chemistry class. He had better get off his academic high-horse, she said, and give these poor students a chance to do well in his class. Her daughter would likely lose her scholarship if he continued to be such a hard grader, and asked if he wanted to be responsible for her losing her scholarship.
“(Wayne’s) friend reminded this mother that her daughter was now an adult and responsible for her own choices. He told her that her daughter’s grades were her own responsibility and that she could contact him directly and explore what she might do to improve her performance in his class. Then he asked her if she had made a habit with her daughter of protecting her from the consequences of her choices all her life, or just since high school. The mother uttered a few choice words and then hung up.
“This mom’s behavior seems symptomatic of so many parents today, who rather than teach personal responsibility, try to either shift the responsibility to others or to try to eliminate negative consequences for their children.
“The truth of the matter is that we cannot permanently escape the consequences of our choices, and that parents who want responsible children must teach them responsibility. There is candidly no more important principle that (parents) can teach than the principle of personal responsibility.”
The same can be said of our relationship with God. Whenever we turn away from God, God calls us back, but God wants us to turn. The Greek word that is translated as turn is the same word that is translated as repent – to turn back toward God and what God wants us to be and to do. To do so, we need to take responsibility for our actions.
As what happens with prophets, God spoke to Ezekiel. God was questioning a proverb that either Ezekiel quoted or was popular with Israelites or both. Again that proverb is, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Apparently this proverb was a big deal in ancient Israel. It is also quoted in Jeremiah (31:29-20). We may look at it and ask, “What does it mean?”
What it is saying is a reflection of Israelite theology. Unfortunately, it is also a theology that some Christians also believe. What it is saying is that children will suffer for the sins of their parents.
For the people of Judah in the time Ezekiel, the proverb makes a lot of sense. They are in exile in Babylon. Their home is long ways a way. Their homes and their city, Jerusalem, are all in ruins. And why would they be in such a predicament? It is because their parents and their ancestors sinned before God and worshipped other gods. So God punished them and sent them into exile and they are paying the price for the mistakes of their predecessors.
This proverb may have died by Jesus’ time, but the theology did not. When Jesus encounters a man born blind (a story we heard last Lent), Jesus’ disciples ask who sinned, the man or his parents? In other words, the man was born blind because of his parent’s sins. Jesus rejected such a notion.
But this notion still exits with some Christians. Back in our parish in Utah during a coffee hour or something, a member was saying how parents with baby’s born with special needs are punished for their sins. Our first son was born profoundly retarded. He looked at me and said, “Except for you.”
God’s response to this proverb is quick and direct. God orders the proverb to be never said again. Everyone’s life belongs to God. God does not say that all Israelites’ lives belong to God. God is saying that all lives belong to God. Your life is God’s. Your ancestor’s lives are God’s. It is the one who sins who will die.
Pretty grim stuff. Anyone who sins will die. Of course, we all die. This time of Ezekiel was when scholars don’t think that an idea of life after death was even considered. So what is God saying?
Another way of saying what God is saying is that we are responsible for our own actions. We cannot blame our parents for our own mistakes. We cannot blame our parents for our own misfortune.
Now having said this, there might be a caveat. We cannot escape what is given to us by our parents. There is a two edged sword. We have a genetic predisposition for doing things a certain way and we have a conditioned response from parenting: the nature, nurture thing. People go to therapy to find out how their parents messed them up. But therapists do not identify how our parents messed us up. They help us find explanations for what bothers us, even those things that happened in childhood. It is up to us to deal with it. So it still ends up being our responsibility. The only person we can control is our own self.
A whole bunch of what God says next is skipped in our lectionary. To be exact, it is twenty verses. We pick things up again with God’s response to the exiles that the proverb implies that God is unjustly punishing them for their parent’s sins. God obviously rejects the charge.
God turns the charge of fairness back on the exiles. They are the ones who are not fair. God reiterates that the wicked will die. But that the wicked, if they repent and if they turn away from wickedness and if they do what is right, they will save their lives. God will forget all the bad stuff we do, if we turn to God and forsake the other things that separate us from God.
Apparently God is not satisfied with the actions of the Israelites. They continue to do evil and this is unfair. God gives them another warning to turn away from their evil ways. The consequence will be their ruin. God pleads, God orders Israel to get a new heart and a new spirit. God does not want them to die. God wants them to live.
We hear this reading at the Easter Vigil. The prayer book title is, “A New Heart and a New Spirit.” The context is the transition from Jesus being in the tomb and then rising from the tomb. Read in this context, this reading could be about us. Because Jesus died for our sins and thereby joined us to God, what more need we do? There is more to do. We, too, need a new heart and a new spirit. We commit to having a heart of compassion and faithfulness. We rejoice in having the Holy Spirit and are willing to let go of our egos enough to allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit.
To Ezekiel, God seems to be in despair. Israel seems incapable of faithfulness. God wants them, but they refuse God. If God gave up on them, God would not have called Ezekiel to bring them back into line. God is desperate to have them back, but God will not compromise God’s integrity. The Israelites are responsible for their own actions and they are responsible for the consequences of their actions.
Too often we focus on punishment and not on grace. God is offering grace, but Israel can’t seem to get past punishment. Israel feels like they are being punished and they say it is not fair. Even when God offers to judge them for what they do and not their parents, it is unfair. For God, it is unfair to reject one’s repentance. It is fair to offer grace.
Last week when we heard the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard where the last were paid the same as the first, the owner rejects the “sour grapes” of the first hired. The owner is gracious to all workers regardless of how long they worked in the vineyard. God’s payment is life and God wants everyone to be paid the same.
Text: Ezekiel 18:1–4, 25–32 (NRSV)
18 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? 3 As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 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 shall die.
25 Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? 26 When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. 27 Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. 28 Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?
30 Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin.c 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.