Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

“So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:7).

September 7, 2008

First Reading
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Commentary on Ezekiel 33:7-11

“So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:7).

In this short passage, God repeats four times the emphatic pronoun “you” (atāh 33: as God spells out Ezekiel’s duties in relation to Israel This passage is as much about the preacher as it is about the word that must be preached. The preacher, like the prophet, is appointed as a watcher who will convey the word of God to God’s people in the form of a warning and a summons from death to life.

The passage is replete with insights for preaching, highlighting the tremendous responsibility of the one who is called to be a sentinel. Such a call to prophetic witness would make a fine sermon at a service of commissioning or ordination for ministry. But on a Sunday in Ordinary Time, the preacher addresses the congregation, and she doesn’t stand in the pulpit to remind them about her job description. How does one move through this passage to a sermon that speaks to the entire congregation?

I find a clue in the contrast between the parable in 33:2, where the people appoint their sentinel, and the address in 33:7, where God appoints the sentinel. While, in the context of Ezekiel, we see that “you, mortal” (33:7) refers to Ezekiel himself, in our preaching context this generic address might speak to anyone. The shift that occurs between 33:2 and 33:7 suggests that not every sentinel is appointed by the people or paid to stand in the pulpit. God can make sentinels of any mortal.

A closer look reveals a further dimension to the designation “mortal,” in Hebrew bēn  ̉ādām, which can also be translated “son of Adam” or “human being.”  Throughout the book of Ezekiel, God addresses the prophet this way, emphasizing the prophet’s humanity and finitude by contrast with God’s awesome power and transcendent glory. But that is not its only purpose. The phrase also connects human to human by the language of kinship. We are reminded of the question asked by the first son of Adam: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).

We could point to the obvious answer to this question (YES) and move on. But if we did, we would miss an opportunity to confront and complicate an idea that prevents most of us from realizing Ezekiel’s prophetic commission–the idea that we should not “meddle” in other people’s affairs.

Healthy boundaries teach us to notice where our responsibilities end and another’s begin. The advice to “mind your own business” keeps us from stirring up conflict and stepping on toes. In light of such wisdom, we might imagine that whatever others do–right or wrong–is ultimately between them and God, and not our affair.

That would be convenient. But it wouldn’t be faithful. Ezekiel affirms boundaries and limits–the prophet who warns the guilty to turn from wicked paths has fulfilled her duty and saved her life. She cannot make anyone turn (incidentally, God can’t do that either). She will not be held accountable for how others respond to God’s warning word. But human is responsible to human. The one who has heard the word of God must warn the guilty.

Now we can ask, to what end? If God has declared a verdict, what good will a warning do? Isn’t it too late? The sins of Israel have earned them their death sentence: they feel the weight of their crimes upon them, and they lament that they are rotting away like living dead (33:10). They ask: “How can we live?” (33:10).

There is a way. The strange revelation of this passage is that God the judge does not want the guilty verdict to stand. God wants the word of judgment to be reversed. God is desperate to revoke the death sentence. As God lives, God declares, God has no pleasure in death, but cherishes human life (7:11). This verse shows us that the life of God and the life of Israel are bound up together.

The challenge God faces is this: the only way to reverse the verdict is for the guilty to cease to be guilty. God cannot make it so by wishing or by willing. God has granted free will to humankind. The choice of life or death is theirs. God guarantees, by God’s own life, that if the people choose life, God will grant it. This is the purpose of the warning. God is willing to wait. The sentinel must warn the guilty to “turn back, turn back” from the road of death, and turn instead wholly to God. If they hear the sentinel’s warning and turn, they will walk not on the road of death, but the road of life.

An all-powerful God cannot coerce repentance. God calls sentinels to make heard the urgent word of grace and life. On this seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, will the preacher give courage to God’s sentinels? Will the preacher sound a warning to the guilty? Will the preacher help the congregation see that hearing and responding to the word of God is a matter of life and death, not for one, but for all? God issues the summons to speak that others may turn. “So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel.”