Whenever my Grandpa needed you to help him with something, he asked in the strangest way. He would say something like, “If you help me mow this yard, I will dance at your wedding in a pig trough.” My Grandpa was raised in northeast Arkansas and he likely heard that saying while growing up.
I like to learn about the strange regional colloquialisms around the world. Some of them leave me scratching my head, but others I just love. In Japan for example, if you want someone to be brutally honest, you tell them,“Do not put clothes on your teeth.” In Germany, if someone just cannot understand what they are being told, it is said that they “have tomatoes on their eyes.” But my favorite is from Russia. The Russian equivalent to “I’m not pulling your leg” is “I am not hanging noodles on your ears.”
Well, in our passage from Ezekiel, we encounter an idiom that has been passed around amongst the people who have found themselves exiled in the land of Babylon. They were saying to one another, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are on edge.”
It’s a strange saying, but it’s born out of deep bitterness. Those Judeans in exile were looking at their present circumstances and were deeply discouraged. They were cut off from their homeland, cut off from their Temple, cut off from everything they had ever relied upon as predictable and reliable. And they found themselves in a foreign land. By the rivers of Babylon, they sat and wept when they remembered Zion.
And as they assess their current circumstances here in Ezekiel 18, they place the blame on the generation that has come before them. It’s their fault we’re in this mess, they say. They are the ones who screwed things up. Our parents have taken a bite out of a sour grape, but it’s our mouths that are filled with rot! And then the blame shifts not just to their ancestors, but to God. It is God who has rigged this system. It is God who is unreasonable. It is God who is being unfair!
Now, you don’t have to journey far into the Bible to find people playing the blame game. In the Garden of Eden, when confronted with his sin, Adam passes the blame on to Eve. And then Eve passes the blame on to the serpent.
We are well-versed in the blame game during our own time. All you need to do is to watch five minutes of any cable news channel to learn that the fault for our country’s many struggles lies at the feet of the opposing political party.
Here in Ezekiel 18, God tells the exiles that they should remove this idiom about the sour grapes from their vocabulary. Instead of blaming the previous generation, God wants the exiles to shift their thinking to their own time and their own place and their own behavior. God wants them to be willing to examine their own actions in the present instead of dissecting the past.
To illustrate this principle, Ezekiel provides us with a kind of proverbial story. The lectionary reading skips over verses 5-18, but they are vital to understanding what is happening here. Ezekiel gives us a map of generational conduct.
Before us, Ezekiel lays three generations: a grandfather, a father, and a son. The Grandpa is a righteous man and Ezekiel says he lives out his righteousness in three ways — with economics, sexuality, and faith.
When it comes to economics, Grandpa uses his resources to provide wellbeing for his neighbors, including the poor in his community. With his sexuality, Grandpa is faithful to his spouse and practices self-control. And in the area of faith, Grandpa maintains covenantal fidelity to God.
However, Grandpa’s son is a violent wicked man and Ezekiel tells us that his wickedness is also expressed in how he lives out his economics, his sexuality, and his faith. The wicked son is a man who participates in the predatory and oppressive economy. With his sexuality, the wicked son does not honor the covenant of his marriage or the covenant of the marriage of his neighbor. And in the area of faith, the wicked son practices idolatry and treats God flippantly.
Yet, the wicked son himself has a son who lives a life of righteousness like his grandfather. Again, Ezekiel tells us that this third generation’s righteousness is reflected in the areas of economics, sexuality, and faith.
The point of Ezekiel’s little story is that each person is not judged according to the actions of the previous or the proceeding generation, but they are measured on their own behavior.
In our time and place, the three areas that Ezekiel highlights are probably worth reflecting on. These three topics of economics, of sexuality, and of religion are the ones that we make the greatest efforts to avoid in any polite conversation. Painting with a very broad brush, many conservatives would prefer that the church never discuss the Bible’s many prophetic demands for neighborly economic practices rather than participating and engaging in exploitation or greed. Likewise, many progressives would prefer that the church never discuss scripture’s calls for a regulated sexuality that summons covenantal faithfulness as the guide stone for any and all relationships. And cutting through all of our ideologies is the call for us to practice religious faith that sets us apart from the ideologies of the world by worshiping the one and only God. These are harsh demands being made on the exiles and on us. Yet, that is what people of faith are called to do in this world.
However, the exiles still don’t feel that the ways of God add up. They cry out, “But that’s not fair!” Evidently, the notion that children are to be punished for their parents’ behavior was so innately ingrained in their psyches that any alternative was not only unfathomable but even offensive. After all, the scandal of the Gospel for many people is not how exclusive grace can be, but who grace includes — even them!
God turns the question around on them and says, “You think my ways are unfair? Have you had a look at yourselves?” Returning again to the tangible acts of righteousness, God accuses the people of having no moral insight on their own wickedness. Just like the exiles in the 21st century Western world, we can take great pride in how progressive and justice-oriented our society can be. We look down our noses at past generations or at cultures different than ours and pat ourselves on the back for how enlightened we are. While there are certainly many moral achievements we have reached in our day and time, we cannot allow those accomplishments to blind us to issues of injustice and oppression and bigotry in our own day and time. Here in Ezekiel 18, God invites each of us to take a good, long look in the mirror before we start trying to point fingers elsewhere.
In the final verses of our passage, God says that the solution to these issues cannot be found simply by diving deeper within ourselves. Instead, it requires a radical transformation. God tells the exiles that they will not live out righteousness simply through grit and determination. They require a heart transplant and an infusion of a new spirit.
God gives new life to the exiles, but God also expects the exiles to participate by living out covenantal faithfulness. This is not, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it, “cheap grace” that comes to us as forgiveness without repentance. This new heart and new spirit summon us to a new kind of life. And if we are paying attention, we catch glimpses of that new life now and again.
A few months ago in Winston-Salem, I attended a lecture by Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and civil rights attorney. Stevenson shared about his work on behalf of convicted children and those on death row. He spoke about disparity in imprisonment rates amongst the poor in our country.
He also talked about his work with The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala. One of the projects that The Legacy Museum is currently doing is to collect soil from the places where African Americans were lynched in our country. The jars of soil from these places are displayed in the museum. Volunteers will research where a lynching took place and then will go to collect the soil.
Stevenson told us a story about a black woman who volunteered to go collect soil from a certain location in a very small, backwoods town in Alabama. She headed towards the location and found herself on gravel roads in the middle of nowhere. She finally found the spot and began to work at digging the dirt. That’s when a pick-up truck drove by. The driver slowed down and stopped. He was a large white man. He sat in his truck just staring at her. Finally, he got out and he said, “What are you doing?”
The woman thought about making up something like she was collecting soil for research. But she said that in that moment she felt led to be completely honest and raw. She said, “Sir, I am here collecting soil from the spot where a man from this town was lynched for being black.”
The man stood there silently. Finally, he said, “May I help you?” He went to the back of his truck and grabbed a hand shovel. Together they began to fill the jar with soil. The woman then realized that both she and the man had tears in their eyes. And they both kneeled on the ground weeping. Before they left, the woman asked why the man had helped her. He told her, “I helped you because there are probably people I am related to who helped lynch this man.” Then they embraced, wept, and continued to fill the jar with soil.
There is a lot of blame to go around for the brokenness in our world. We can waste our time blaming those in the past; we can waste our time rolling our eyes at those who will lead in the future. Or we can do what Ezekiel compels us to do — we can listen for the spirit of God in our day and in our time, and we can live out righteousness by getting our hands dirty.
The Good News of the Gospel is that God leads us to a new way of living. God gives us a new heart and a new spirit. News that good almost seems unbelievable. But sisters and brothers, I am not hanging noodles on your ears.
Thanks be to God.
Most gracious and loving God, infuse us with the new heart and new spirit that only comes from you. May we be faithful followers of your good news in all we say and in all we do. Amen.