Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Today’s gospel lesson is a hard one for those of us who live  in a culture whose motto “live and let live” quite often replaces the much more challenging work of mending broken lives by tending to the causes of brokenness.

September 4, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on Ezekiel 33:7-11

Today’s gospel lesson is a hard one for those of us who live  in a culture whose motto “live and let live” quite often replaces the much more challenging work of mending broken lives by tending to the causes of brokenness.

If Matthew 18:15-20 delineates an almost legalistic procedure for bringing a community member to accept responsibility for wrongdoing, Ezekiel 33:7-11 addresses the crippling despair that can occur when we do face our sin squarely and accept responsibility for the harm we have caused.

Standing between the announcements of judgment in Ezekiel 1-32 and restoration in 34-48, Ezekiel 33 constitutes a rare moment of human choice in an otherwise theocentric book. In 33:21-22, Ezekiel learns from a fugitive from Jerusalem that the city of Jerusalem has fallen. But this is not the end of Ezekiel’s ministry, or the end of God’s work with the exiles. Verses 7-9 repeat almost verbatim Ezekiel’s call to be a sentinel in 3:16-21.

This role was derived from the practice of warfare, when it was the custom for cities to appoint lookouts to sound the alarm in the event of an invasion (Ezekiel 33:1-6). Even though, or perhaps because, Jerusalem has already been destroyed, the moral danger has not yet passed for the exiles. Accordingly, God continues to hold Ezekiel accountable for the lives of even the sinners in his community. If Ezekiel does not warn them and they die in their guilt, God will hold him personally responsible for their deaths.

At this point, however, the problem is no longer convincing the exiles of their guilt, but of persuading them that it is not the last word. In verse 10, God reports that the exiles are in utter despair: “Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” The saying is reminiscent of confessions of sin in the penitential psalms; for example, Psalm 51 expresses a similar sense of abject and total guilt (see especially verses 3-5). The difference in Ezekiel, however, is that it is not accompanied by an appeal to God’s mercy. In light of the destruction of Jerusalem, the exiles despair of life. “How can we live?”

Ezekiel answers this despair by quoting the concluding verse of Ezekiel 18. That chapter begins with the refutation of the proverb, “the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (18:2). The exiles had used the proverb to absolve themselves of any responsibility for their current predicament. Through an elaborate examination of intergenerational guilt and punishment, Ezekiel 18 deconstructs the exiles’ conviction that the consequences of sin are passed on from one generation to the next. Sinners bear their own guilt (18:4).

The exiles’ abject expression of guilt would therefore suggest that they have gotten the message: they are guilty, so guilty, in fact, that they know they deserve to die. But if that is all they have learned, they have not yet fully understood the purpose of Ezekiel’s work among them. By alluding to the end of Ezekiel 18, and not its beginning, Ezekiel 33:11 suggests that their consciousness of guilt should lead to repentance and life, not despair.  Such repentance is possible, God takes pleasure in repentance not punishment (18:23), and it is up to Ezekiel’s audience to decide: “Why should (NRSV: will) you die, O House of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God, Turn, then, and live!” (18:31-32).

By invoking chapter 18, Ezekiel 33:11 insists that consciousness of guilt should lead to repentance and life, not despair. The verb for repentance (šûb, turn, return) appears rarely in Ezekiel, but it does appear here; in fact, Ezekiel 33:11 doubles the call to repentance that we find in 18:30: Turn, Turn! Here, as elsewhere in the Bible, repentance calls, quite literally, for turning away from a present course of action and turning or returning toward a new way, the way of obedience to God.

Repentance, or turning, is an inherently hopeful idea, because it assumes that it is possible to change course, even after a long life of sin. Human beings are not slaves of sin, or held captive to despair; they are free to choose another way. If it is only sinners who die, and repentance is possible, the most logical thing in the world would be to turn away from sin and toward God. As if to underscore that point, Ezekiel restates the general principle that God does not desire the death of anyone, not even the wicked (33:11). What God does take pleasure in is repentance that leads to life: “turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?”

Is repentance possible? I once had a student enamored of two great Christian realists, Augustine of Hippo and Reinhold Niebuhr. Convinced of the reality and pervasiveness of sin as it has come to be understood in certain strands of the Christian tradition, my student could see no evidence in Ezekiel 33 that the exiles could or would be able to repent.

Though the exiles might want to, they would be incapable of doing so. Perhaps my student was right. Just a few chapters later, we will see a valley filled with the dry bones of the whole house of Israel (Ezekiel 37). No longer asking “how can we live?” these dry bones now say, “we are clean cut off.” No one has yet turned, the way of death has prevailed, and it will be up to the spirit of God to bring them back to life.

We must therefore reckon with the possibility that Ezekiel’s audience could not hear his message of grace. But if they couldn’t hear this message, perhaps we can’t either, and perhaps that is why Matthew 18:15-20 remains a hard reading. Confront one another? Name sin for what it is? Expect repentance? Why not just focus on God’s love and keep muddling along? On the other hand, it seems unreasonable that God would call for repentance if it were impossible to do. Certainly the rhetoric of 33:11 suggests that the choice between living and dying is one that is ours to make.