Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Stubborn. Impudent. Rebellious.

"pilgrim" by Matúš Benian via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.  

July 5, 2015

First Reading
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Commentary on Ezekiel 2:1-5

Stubborn. Impudent. Rebellious.

These are the adjectives God uses in this address to the prophet to describe the people of ancient Israel. The descriptors certainly do not cast Ezekiel’s audience in the best light. The labels neither tell the whole story of Israel’s behavior nor provide the ethical scope for a proper theological anthropology.

It’s a one-sided characterization.

So, we initially wouldn’t want to hover for too long over this unfortunate text from the lectionary (never mind that it’s Ezekiel too!). Yet, a number of homiletic possibilities spring forth from this short reading. Allow me to make three points.

First, the adjectives remind us of that side of humanity that finds it difficult to respond obediently to God’s call. This may not be the easiest notion to preach, but we are capable of stubbornness. The prophets did not wait until Lent to remind people of this capacity.

For Ezekiel’s context, words such as “stubborn” are particularly poignant given their occurrence within his call or commissioning near the beginning of this biblical book. Our lesson today from Ezekiel 2 comes immediately after the well-known chariot vision of Ezekiel in which the prophet sees “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God” (Ezekiel 1:28). Ezekiel has experienced an overwhelming divine vision and now hears a divine voice. If he is not already engulfed in the immensity of his prophetic call, our passage promises to create such a feeling. His call shall not involve preaching to a receptive audience ready for introspection and change. The prophet is called instead to a house of rebellion, a phrase unique to this biblical book.

Perhaps those of you who lead congregations (or deal with people in any capacity!) are nodding with recognition at this previous point. God’s call to Ezekiel, while including fantastic visions of the divine, also includes a realistic element: people may refuse to hear. People choose their response. And sometimes they choose to not heed the words of the prophet.

This rather pessimistic attitude toward ancient Israel is also a result of the exilic context of the book of Ezekiel. If God is not to blame for the exile (and Ezekiel surely affirms that theological notion), then the people must be to blame. This point, of course, highlights the danger of such name-calling. While it is true that we like ancient Israel can be a stubborn people at times, it is simply not true that many events — especially international events like the fall of nation-states, are the result of our rebellion. When attempting to make sense of their exilic situation, some prophets tended to emphasize Israel’s direct role in their demise, while ignoring the more likely political factors at play. We must be careful when speaking of rebellious houses to not misplace blame and shame. When bad things happen, it can be tempting to resort to blaming the victim.

Second, the call of God through the prophet implies that the people can respond. Although they are rebellious, they are not without hope. God holds out hope that the people will hear and respond. This implication is actually not emphasized much in this small passage from Ezekiel. Additionally, if you continuing reading into Ezekiel 3, you will find more name-calling (“the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart”) and little signal that God thinks Ezekiel’s prophecies will result in changed hearts.

Yet, the prophetic call for change still goes forth. And this prophetic message is written down and preserved. It is read and reread through the years and centuries until this very Sunday in Pentecost. The prophetic call goes forth not because there is no chance of a response. The call comes to us because we can and do respond.

Third, this passage from Ezekiel 2 connects to the Gospel reading for today, Mark 6:1-13. In the lesson from Mark, Jesus teaches in his hometown synagogue and receives a less than positive reception. In response to this rejection, he quotes a proverb: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown … ”

The two readings share the idea that a prophetic voice is not always heard. Jesus identifies himself as a prophet — standing in continuity with ancient Israel’s prophetic tradition — who, like those earlier prophets, does not find everywhere a receptive audience. There is risk inherent in speaking for and about God. Prophets take this risk. Some will hear and respond to the call; others will be more stubborn.