ON Scripture: Dr. Greg Carey on Ezekiel 18

ON Scripture - Sunday, September 25, 2011

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

by Greg Carey

Ezekiel speaks compellingly to the current situation in the United States.  But is the prophet's message true?

Precise Diagnosis

The society the prophet addresses suffers from a severe lack of perspective.  It knows God's standards.  These appear in the verses our Lectionary passes over, Ezekiel 18:5-24.  God condemns idolatry, sexual immorality, exploitative lending, and violence. God demands that people look to the needs of the poor and ensure that the powerless receive the same justice as do the powerful.  The society knows God's ways, and yet it rejects them.  "The way of the Lord is unfair!," it cries.

It's 2011.  Could a passage possibly speak more directly to a society still encumbered by the effects of unjust lending?  With politicians waging a national campaign against the poor - "Tax them more, and liberate the job creators!" - could Ezekiel's message strike closer to the heart?  In the United States the private corrections industry actually writes the laws by which we incarcerate immigrants, and we imprison more of our citizens than does any other "free" society.  How can we ignore this prophet, who demands equal justice for all people? With so many people waving Bibles around and holding prayer meetings, one would expect some familiarity with the way of God. Instead, it seems the loudest Christians declare Ezekiel's message unjust.

Thank God some religious leaders are stepping up to resist my home state's draconian immigration law. Ezekiel's God surely acknowledges the other religious leaders who challenged both Democrats and Republicans to remember the poor in their response to the federal deficit. 

Nagging Question

Amazing that an ancient prophet would speak so truthfully to the specifics of our own circumstances. But is Ezekiel correct?

Ezekiel refutes a common proverb: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (18:2). Remarkably, Jeremiah also rejects this same proverb (Jeremiah 31:29-34).  But there's a stubborn thing about such proverbs:  they usually convey profound truth. One generation's sins (of omission and commission) often manifest themselves in the suffering of the next.

Painful family legacies confirm the old proverb. One generation's alcoholism is the next generation's disability. Domestic violence and sexual abuse migrate from generation to generation. The surest predictor of one's poverty is the poverty of one's parents.

The proverb speaks not only to households but also to societies. It speaks powerfully to our current situation in the United States. Those of us who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s looked after ourselves. Our grandparents made enormous sacrifices so that we could prosper. They tilled farms and toiled in factories - many of them did both - so that we could finish school and find steady employment. We pursued wealth, and some of us attained it. We demanded lower taxes.  We bought houses far larger than our parents even desired. Our 401(k) accounts were more important to us than building our society's infrastructure. 

We ate the grapes, but our children will taste their full sourness. Ezekiel and Jeremiah are only partly correct. Children do suffer the consequences of their parents' sins.

A Compelling Vision

But a prophet's truth does not reside in accuracy assessment of the contemporary situation. It lies in the power of the prophet's vision. Ezekiel reveals the enormous gap between our ways of accounting things and the ways of God. Our actions do resonate through the generations. But God's graciousness grants each generation a fresh start. True prophets reveal God's world to us, and that world judges the inadequate truths by which we live.

Ezekiel knows the truth of that very proverb he rejected. Due to his ancestors' unfaithful ways, he resides as an exile in Babylon. The bitter taste in his mouth comes from his parents' generation. Yet the word of the Lord that comes to him reveals an alternative truth.

In other words, Ezekiel calls us to break from our former patterns to embrace God's ways. As we parents move farther and farther toward retirement and beyond, the prophet's vision calls us to set our children free.

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