Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Even while meting out punishment, Israel’s God was not ruthless or without mercy

October 1, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

This passage raises compelling questions about divine retribution—the notion that God punishes sinful acts and rewards righteous behavior. 

In particular, Ezekiel 18 suggests that each person should only pay for their own sins. Punishment should not carry forward to one’s offspring (18:1, 4). Notably, each person will have the opportunity to change their behavior and thus avoid their deserved penalty. Observing the consequences of a parent’s behavior would facilitate this change (18:14-20). In the historical context, that probably referred to the community of exiles learning from the mistakes of their ancestors, whose disobedience to God was interpreted as having caused their captivity. While Ezekiel 18 seems to indicate that individual responsibility for sins was an innovation, the idea exists elsewhere in the canon (Deuteronomy 24:16).

Ezekiel does not seem bothered by the idea of a punishing God. In the ancient world, that was a welcome attribute in a deity. After all, a God who did nothing to keep the community—or its enemies—in line would be as worthless as a society that did nothing to punish its criminals. This passage emphasizes that even while meting out punishment, Israel’s God was not ruthless or without mercy. The people have reason to hope. They have a chance to change their ways, and that is exactly what God wants for them. 

But in what ways exactly should the people change? It is worth examining the verses not included in the lectionary reading (18:5-24) to see what our ancestors in faith considered righteousness, and sin. Obedience to the LORD GOD entails care for the poor, hungry, and needy (18:7, 8, 12, 16). Ezekiel asserts that an unjust society neglects its most vulnerable members. As for sin, this list contains the expected commandments familiar from Exodus 20:1-17//Deuteronomy 5:6-21, including idolatry, murder, theft, and adultery.

Some items on the catalog of sins challenge our modern sensibilities. We may be surprised to read the condemnation of one who “takes advance or accrued interest” (18:13). Another baffling example instructs avoiding a menstruating woman (likely a specific prohibition of sexual contact during a woman’s cycle, 18:6). This aligns with the ritual guidelines in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 18:19), and would have seemed perfectly logical to Ezekiel, given his priestly roots. The idea of “eat[ing] upon the mountains” may sound similarly perplexing, but it refers to worshiping other deities. Sara Wells’ piece about Ezekiel on BibleOdyssey helpfully describes this religious and historical context of Ezekiel.

Notice that this list in Ezekiel 18:5-24 defines obedience to the LORD according to behavior rather than belief. This dichotomy marks a difference between Judaism and Christianity—typically Judaism focuses on behavior, whereas Christianity developed statements of belief. Yet it seems reasonable based on both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that we Christians have every reason to scrutinize our actions at least as much as our creeds. 

We could benefit from ongoing serious discussion about how to care for the “hungry” and the “naked” (18:7, 12, 16), and about how we might exercise “true justice” (18:8). While few Christians in our culture view interest lending (or “usury”) as sinful, these verses rightfully challenge us to consider the societal harm those economic practices inflict. In 18:7 Ezekiel calls out those who would hold a “pledge.” Think of a pawn, perhaps of a person’s only possession, such as a blanket. Do any of our current fiscal practices parallel this condemned system? A point of interfaith connection could mention the Muslim law of riba, which prohibits interest on loans to protect those in need.

This passage culminates with instructions from the Holy One to “throw away your rebellion,” paired with the chance to “make for yourself a new heart and a new spirit” (18:31, my translation). This unites the false dichotomy of behavior versus belief. 

While many of us today intellectually reject the idea of divine punishment, the concept still inhabits many of us. Many of us, particularly in dire circumstances, will assume that God’s judgment plays a causal role between our behaviors and our life experiences. I will never forget the night when, as a hospital chaplain, I was called to the ER to be with a woman whose infant had inexplicably died. As she rightly wailed, her words of lament were directed at God: “Why did you take my baby when I just started going back to church?” 

This woman’s cries remind us of what we all observe: Sometimes “the righteous are treated according to the acts of the wicked, and the wicked are treated according to the acts of the righteous” (Ecclesiastes 8:15, my translation). These experiences reverse the way divine retribution is supposed to work. Job similarly challenges the retribution system (for instance chapter 21). The way we Christians typically retain this idea—whether of punishment or reward—is by pushing it into the afterlife, where its accomplishment becomes an act of faith rather than fact. 

Yet the dilemma of the daily decision remains: How will I behave? 

The biblical books present tensions between communal and individual punishment, and assertions of and challenges to retribution. There are meaningful reasons to reflect on these varying views. Whether we think of consequences as divinely imposed or not, many behaviors have their own built-in outcomes. What are the warnings that we fail to heed today that can have both individual and communal effects? 

These questions can be used abusively, as with vocal public religious leaders who take it upon themselves to deem a given natural disaster the outcome of their sin of choice. While we must avoid drawing conclusions about divinely imposed consequences, we can learn a great deal from humbly reflecting on how our mistakes may come back to haunt our children. Examples include climate change and the fallout from economic, racial, and gendered societal inequities. What might bring our ruin, and how will we change our ways to “throw away your rebellion” and “make for [ourselves] a new heart and a new spirit” (18:31)? We must reflect on those things compassionately, without taking on God’s job of assigning blame for anyone’s circumstances.

Ezekiel 18 contains similarities to last week’s reading from Jonah 3:10-4:11 (see 9/24/2023, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost; Ord. 25). That passage began with the announcement that God had changed God’s mind about destroying Nineveh because the Ninevites had changed their ways (3:10). Here we find a similar sentiment: turn away from wrongdoing and you and your children will avoid the punishment. The prophet Jonah was “angry enough to die” (4:9) because that system allowing for mercy did not seem fair to him. In Ezekiel, as in Jonah, God “has no desire in the death of the wicked.” Ezekiel reports the people’s concern that this arrangement, in which someone who had behaved wickedly eliminates that behavior and turns to righteousness, is “unfair” (18:25, the Hebrew means “not right; not equitable”). The required change goes beyond a simple or occasional edit of one’s ways—recall the repentant Ninevites in Jonah, all the way down to their cattle wearing sackcloth (3:8). The final verse in this Ezekiel passage, like in Jonah 3:10 and 4:11, returns to the emphasis on God’s radical mercy. By God’s own self-admission, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live” (18:32).