Commentary on Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Two for one special! Ezekiel 18 not only gives us material for a sermon, it helps us to reflect on the process of preaching itself.
When I served as a parish pastor, I conducted “feed-forward” sessions, to elicit comments on how the members of the congregation (including youth) reacted to a passage of scripture that would become the basis for a sermon. In chapter 18 God seems to have conducted some kind of similar feed-forward session to understand how the people felt before speaking the sermon through Ezekiel. (I will allow you to use your own theory of inspiration for scripture and sermon writing. Did God conduct the feed forward session or did Ezekiel?)
In the feed forward sessions (or just because God knew) God discerns that the people assume the attack, defeat, and exile caused by the Babylonians had occurred as punishment for the sins of the previous generations. The people experiencing the exile hadn’t sinned had they?!
God and Ezekiel, working together on a sermon (the ideal situation, but hard to achieve), compose an extended illustration about a family. In the family, the grandfather practices the faith diligently, observing genuine worship, living ethically, and maintaining ritual purity. The grandfather knows the holiness codes, the Torah, and practices them. The son, however, does not absorb the faithfulness of the father. The son does not live ethically, oppressing the poor. He does not practice genuine worship, but engages in idolatry. The son rejects the faithfulness of the father. The grandson, however, returns to the ways of the grandfather.
This extended illustration (Ezekiel 18:5-20) makes the “point” that God can discern the sins of each generation of the family. The people experiencing exile cannot point their fingers either at the previous generations or at God. God has not treated them unfairly. God has not punished them for the sins of previous generations.
The sermon illustration, but more importantly the whole chapter, reveals the character of God (another reason why the chapter teaches us about the nature of preaching itself). The chapter reveals more than just the balance between God’s judgment and God’s forbearance, but the genuine anguish of God over the sin of the people.
The first part of the actual reading for this day serves to debunk the idea that God punishes for the sins of a previous generation. This affirmation serves an important purpose. Strands within the Pentateuch make the clear affirmation that God punishes subsequent generations for the sins of the people. Exodus 34:6-7 proclaim God’s love and mercy, but declare that God will visit iniquity on “the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
The rhetorical and theological purpose of these kinds of affirmation are to warn the first generation that the consequences of sin can linger stubbornly, causing grief and anguish for generations. The contemporary church can realize the conflicts and suffering that go back generations in American history. Contemporary Christians can see how the inexcusable behavior of previous generations has created problems that persist to today. That behavior does not excuse our sins or mitigate the responsibility we have now.
Ezekiel 18:1-4 want to make that point. The metaphor about setting one’s teeth on edge by eating sour grapes may not quite come through clearly, but the responsibility for sin is the main point. We might make a face when we eat sour grapes, but we don’t usually set our teeth on edge. Verse 4 states God’s claim on us, God’s sovereignty over us.
Ezekiel 18:25-32 present a heartfelt dialogue between God and the people. The speech of God, responding to the accusations of the people, reveals God’s genuine concern that the people understand God’s passion about their sins. God does not punish vindictively. God punishes because God experiences genuine anguish over the sins of the people. The message of the book, taken as a whole, is that God’s judgment and punishment become part of God’s overall intention to renew and restore. Verse 31 communicates that notion passionately and forcefully. God’s real desire is for the people to have a new heart (seat of the will) and a new spirit (vitality).
Even though the passage seems to read as a message to a collection of individuals, the thrust of the book concerns the identity of the community as the people of God. The sins of the people, the whole people, have led to the punishment of exile. Some individuals among the people likely practiced genuine worship and lived ethically. Yet, they too will experience the horror of exile.
We can see the contemporary analogies to Ezekiel’s message. Our ancestors in the United States practiced deeply racist policies. We continue to feel the effects of these policies. The sins of our ancestors do not excuse our participation in those sins or our current behavior. We practice the idolatry of worshipping success. Even individuals who seek to live ethical lives experience the consequences of past racism; the estrangement, the polarization. God desires life and wholeness in the community. God wants a new heart and spirit for us. Judgment can take at least two forms. God can directly judge and punish. On the other hand, judgment can come simply because our foolishness catches up to us.
As Ezekiel 18:4 affirms, God has a claim on us. God calls us to love our neighbors and to break down barriers. We can list easily the sins for which God feels passion:
- Poisoning the environment
- Human trafficking
- A broken political system
- Immature dialogue about social issues.
A sermon from this chapter can identify collective sins, for which we all bear some responsibility. It can affirm that we cannot point the finger at others, even from the past. We must face our own participation. It can communicate God’s deep passion about the people who are hurt by these issues. It can proclaim that God wishes for us to find our good heart and good spirit, and will help us achieve those.