Ezekiel 18: 1-4 and 25-32, page784
The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”?
As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.
(25) Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.”
Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die.
Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.”
O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!
Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord god.
Turn, then, and live.
I was talking with my friend Andy Crichton the other day; he was on his way to the dentist to have a crown put on a tooth.
“That doesn’t sound like much fun Andy,” I said.
“I don’t think it will be. Have you had anything like this done?” he asked.
“No, I don’t think I’ve had but two cavities in my life,” I answered.
“Well,” Andy said, “you must not go to see the dentist very often.”
The truth is, or so our family dentist used to say, is that I have my Dad’s teeth, and so in addition to regular brushing and flossing I am the beneficiary of good genes.
I’m thankful that genetics has given me good teeth, but I might trade in good teeth for a fuller head of hair, as in addition to his teeth I am acquiring my father’s hair line. Unfortunately, such decisions aren’t up to me – when it comes to genetics you get what you get.
We know this to be true – that so much of who we are is determined without our consent. Many traits pass from parents to children – hair color, skin tone, body shape. To some degree or another, even your athletic ability, personality, intellect, all may be decided before you even had a chance to decide for yourself who you wanted to be.
So we end up with expressions like “a chip off the old block,” “the apple doesn’t land far from the tree,” or “she’s her daddy’s girl” because who we are has to do with who our parents are. The genetic material that knit us together decides for us, and our genes didn’t even think to ask before they gave some of us long legs, slow metabolisms, or quickly receding hair lines.
The Israelites were so convinced of this truth that they believed not only that eye color, skin tone, and height were determined by genetics, they went so far as to believe that even sin can be passed down from mother to daughter, father to son. Hence the expression that begins our 2nd scripture lesson: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
The expression is one of those that are almost from the Bible but not quite. Sort of like “God helps those who help themselves” or “the Lord never gives us more than we can handle,” it is almost biblical.
This expression was probably inspired by Moses, where in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy God claims that some sins are so powerfully bad that punishment for committing them must span not just lifetimes, but generations.
The Israelites, at the time of Ezekiel, took this idea and used it to explain their situation. They were in exile in Babylon, taken there as military prisoners of war, and were stuck, not because they did anything wrong, but because their parents did.
The book of Lamentations, probably written at the same time and certainly responding to the same frustration of life in exile says, “Our ancestors sinned; they are no more, and we bear their iniquities.”
Scripture explains the Babylonian invasion, their destruction of homes, violence towards women and children, and death in the streets as God’s judgment, punishment for their disobedience. As the living were captured and taken forcibly to live in Babylon, they explained the horror as the wages of their own sin.
We don’t think about it exactly that way, but we do believe that the wages of sin is death; that those who live by the sword die by the sword. We don’t call it unfair that those who choose adultery also watch their marriages crumble - not as random misfortune but as the logical result of their actions. The same is true for theft or murder – if you do wrong you should expect to be punished.
But the cruel reality is that not only the one who sinned pays the price.
Children are the innocent victims of their parents’ mistakes all the time, all alcoholism, all drug abuse. They pay the price not for their own sin but the sins of their parents – and so some truth resounds from the proverb: “the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” For the sins of the parents may well go on punishing the children.
But the difference between stating that we bear their iniquities and that sin passes from one generation to another is the role that God plays in the process.
Certainly society has seen it both ways. Across the street from Presbyterian College where Sara and I graduated sits the Thornwell Children’s Home – an orphanage founded by the same man who started the college. Only in the last 50 years have children out of wedlock been accepted, as though God were punishing the children for their parents’ sin.
When our expectations of children are influenced by who their parents are, we’re not so different – expecting little from those whose parents have accomplished little in our eyes and expecting much from those whose parents have accomplished much, as though God’s blessing or curse passed down from one generation to the next. “Well, you know who his father is, what do you expect?” we might say.
So the Israelites didn’t have much trouble believing that God was keeping them there in exile because of what their parents did or didn’t do, as sometimes we believe that the present is completely determined by the past – who we are is totally contingent on who we come from – and the future – our future – is already set in stone as though God already decided.
But it’s God’s role in all of this that we shouldn’t be so sure of, the prophet says. For while you might be so bold to think that the sons and daughters of alcoholism, infidelity, and laziness are stuck in the trap that their parents laid out; don’t be so bold to go believing that God has preordained it to be so.
“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!
Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God.
Turn, then, and live.”
Turn, then, and live, says the Lord – making plain the truth that a new way of life is just as possible now as it ever was.
Turn, then, and live - making plain the truth that who you are has not been decided until it has been decided by you.
Turn, then, and live - making plain the truth that where you come from, your family, even your genes will not determine the course of your future.
Turn, then, and live says the Lord – for the Lord God takes no pleasure in your death and continually celebrates your new life.