Commentary on Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:1).
It was a popular saying in Ezekiel’s time. It was also a dangerous saying. It was a proverb that would lead a people from sickness to death. These simple words had seduced them to surrender, to resignation, because in the face of horrible pain they could see no way out. Instead of asking what they could change, they told each other that they had no choice: suffering was the only option available. Someone else had seen to that long ago.
Ezekiel refutes the deadly proverb with logic that sounds harsh, but in fact holds out life-giving grace. Before we can understand what was at stake in refuting the proverb, we need to get behind it. What was this about? The text gives us our first clue: it concerns “the land of Israel.”
Imagine: We are in Babylonia, among the first wave of Judean exiles, before the fall of Jerusalem. This Jewish community in Babylonia was forcibly deported from Judah, from “the land of Israel.” After a violent and bloody siege, they had walked hundreds of miles as captives, humiliated on this journey only to be ruled in the land of their captors. The flood plain where they now settled was a far cry from the hills of Judah they had left behind. But their concern for the land of Israel extended beyond their humiliation, beyond their loss, beyond their longing: they had left loved ones behind. Their homeland was still in danger. The holy city and temple, once thought to be inviolate, would not withstand the great empire forever. Babylon had not finished with Judah, and Ezekiel promised them that Jerusalem’s hour was coming.
This was all too much. They could not have deserved what they had suffered. If God was as powerful as Ezekiel claimed, they reasoned that God must have willed these disasters. God had brought exile and destruction as punishment for sins, as promised by the prophets. But whose sins? The exiles in Babylonia were convinced that it wasn’t their fault: they were paying the price for the crimes of generations past.
This neat saying about sour grapes absolved Ezekiel’s contemporaries from any responsibility for their current situation. They could point the finger far into the past and moan about picking up the pieces after earlier generations had made a mess of things.
God cuts them short. “As I live,” says God, you won’t be reciting this proverb anymore (18:3). God’s speech grounds their responsibility in the fact that God is a living God, dynamic, engaged in the present life of the people just as much as God had been in their past. “All lives are mine,” says God. The parents, yes, and also the children. The life of this present generation is God’s, and what God brings into the present is for them and about them. They can stop looking back, and start looking around. This is their moment with God.
The lectionary text skips now from verse 4 to verse 25. The verses in between further underscore the responsibility of the present generation. Ezekiel undercuts any illusions that they are righteous children suffering for the crimes of unrighteous parents. If they suffer for crimes, the crimes are their own. But for precisely that reason there is always a way out, a way forward. The prophet now begins to point the way forward through repentance, the way out of death to life. The wicked can turn from sin and live. At the same time, the righteous can fall from virtue and die. Crimes and merits of the past will not weigh in the balance.
This can’t be right. “The way of the Lord is unfair!(lô yitâkçn)” (18:25). The base (qal) meaning of the verbal root used here, (tâkan) is “to determine according to size or weight.” The niphal (middle-passive) form that occurs in this passage means “to measure up, be in order, be correct.”1 The charge against God is that God is not dealing honestly. Shouldn’t all crimes and merits be weighed in the balance against one another? Instead, God’s focus on the present would throw out a lifetime of virtue, or a lifetime of sin, letting them count for nothing in the scales of judgment.
God’s answer is that God’s measures are certainly in order. It is the people of Israel who are using faulty measures. They are willing to throw away their own life, which is worth everything. God turns the charge around to show that it is not about fairness after all. It is about the ultimate value: life. God holds out life to the house of Israel. The one way to life is not by atoning for someone else’s sins: that is no kind of life, and it is not their responsibility. The way to life is simple: “Repent and turn” (18:30).
Ezekiel 18 has frequently been made to proclaim a gospel of individual responsibility that verges toward modern individualism. That interpretation doesn’t square with the text, where we repeatedly hear the address: “O house of Israel.” The life God wills is the life of the community. One challenge and gift of preaching this text is to re-embed the modern individual in this life.
As I approach this text for preaching, I ask myself how my community and my generation have abdicated responsibility for our collective choices, adopting a pretense of powerlessness. It is easier to imagine that we can’t do anything to change what appears to be broken. What a lack of faith! What a lack of imagination! God calls this church, this generation, this people to stop making excuses, and stop hiding behind other people’s mistakes. We are to turn our honest gaze on ourselves and repent now, making life our ultimate value.
1Koehler-Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.