“18 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:
“‘The parents eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?”
“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel….
The one who sins is the one who will die.” – Ezekiel 18:1-3
I remember years ago working at a church and having an interesting discussion with a colleague about a movie she’d seen.
She shared how much she’d appreciated the theatrical remake of the Dr. Seuss story “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” starring, at the time, the popular actor Jim Carey.
I don’t remember many details about the conversation but one thing still stands out in my memory:
She was very impressed with the compassion and understanding the movie showed for the Grinch.
Sure he was a nasty, greedy, selfish character – no doubt about it.
At the same time, I was told that the movie was thoughtful in that it helped the viewer understand why the Grinch was the way he was.
It gave some of his “backstory” as some like to say today, showing that he had indeed had a very hard life, a life full of abuse and suffering, and so it only made sense to recognize that he was a monster, yes – but an understandable monster.
Others had created him.
We have the same kinds of discussions today don’t we? Perhaps in these increasingly difficult days, more and more so…
As a matter of fact, these kinds of thoughts are now increasingly dominating our world.
When others do bad things, when they covet, commit adultery, steal, kill… we should realize that we helped make them who they are. In some very real way, we, too, are responsible…
Sinning against them, we made them.
Not too long ago, I had a discussion with a friend about these kinds of things as well. We were talking about rates of violent crime being higher among certain groups of people….
My very intelligent friend this:
“Some people choose to steal. What leads them to it? Thrill seeking, peer pressure, and/or economic necessity among other things. Can anything be done to reduce thefts by thrill seeking people? Maybe but probably not. However, there are things that can be done to reduce economic insecurity by societies, communities, organizations, or individuals. Taking action in this way does not reduce the agency of an individual as (s)he could still choose to steal but people’s choices are both constrained and colored by their circumstances and past experiences.”
In other words, it doesn’t only matter that someone else is stealing… You, also, are the man!
Long live the Grinch re-make, right?
I jest a bit here, but is there not truth in what my friend says?
While we shouldn’t ever let such things become our identity, must we not admit that we, each and every one of us, are both victims and victimizers?
This is why I told my friend:
“Your view, I’d argue, is really the only sensible way of looking at the issue. The difference, of course, will often lie in the details of any proposed solutions, as people who genuinely want to make things better will come to have different emphases based on views of human nature, history, and such…”
Now, what am I saying?
Am I encouraging all of you, even indirectly… subtly… to embrace the arguments in the popular new book In Defense of Looting?
Not at all!
May it never be! : )
No, what I really looking to say is this:
While we would be fools to think that we will not be held accountable for the ways that we have caused others to sin, or even been complicit… involved… entangled, in how the society we live in has caused others to sin, this is also often something that only God can sort out, and will.
The fact of the matter is that we do not always understand the real, underlying causes about why people do bad things.
We do not even understand why we ourselves desire, think, say, do the evil things we do.
We do know, however, that sin is in all of us….
And God means for each and every human being not to focus on locating the problems and sins we have outside of ourselves but to keep on asking: How have I displeased the Lord? In what ways am I responsible here?
For ultimately, when it comes to the matters of living this life on earth, every person must blame no others for their sins but embrace full accountability for their own thoughts, words, and deeds…
And this is also a sign for us about how that accountability – and that real corresponding guilt – holds true before God as well.
That is what our text makes very clear this morning:
Each of us must stand naked before God, with all our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds…
As David put it in a prayer, kindly aiding us today:
“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge….”
Now before we get into our text from Ezekiel more, let’s talk about its surrounding context.
If you read the first 18 chapters leading up to this, for example, you will see that God does not begin by addressing each individual person.
Rather, we see that there is definitely something we might call corporate sin…
This, in fact, early on, seems to be largely what the book of Ezekiel is about… They, as a people, a communal group, have “not walked in my statutes or obeyed my rules…”
They have gone whoring after other gods.
Now, let’s remember: the Israelites that Ezekiel is pummeling here had been through a lot!
First, they had been surrounded by their neighbors, the Canaanites, who worshipped false gods, going so far as practicing temple prostitution and offering their own children as sacrifices.
Second, Israel had been invaded by these neighbors time and again, and had experienced much abuse, hardship, and suffering… The ones Ezekiel is talking to in fact had been taken as slaves, carried off into exile in Babylon…
Therefore, many in this time had concluded that God had abandoned them – or that He had no power – and so turned to their neighbor’s false gods and goddesses for relief…
Now one might think, especially if we are living in America today, that all of this might be somewhat understandable, much like my colleague thought the Grinch had been shown to be “understandable”…
After all, hadn’t their neighbors—the nations around them—been at least one of the reasons why they fell into sin… they fell so dramatically way from the Lord?
Well, strictly speaking, the Bible doesn’t deny the nations around Israel are a part of this story.
And yet, as the same time, that doesn’t mean that Israel’s sin, to God, was in any way “understandable”… (air quotes)
God, in fact, would seem to have very little patience for such a sentiment, for He addresses the matter of their fear head on:
“…you have feared the sword, and I will bring the sword upon you”, the Lord says…
In chapter 7, for example, we read this:
5 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says:
“‘Disaster! Unheard-of[a] disaster!
See, it comes!
6 The end has come!
The end has come!
It has roused itself against you.
See, it comes!
7 Doom has come upon you,
upon you who dwell in the land.
The time has come! The day is near!
There is panic, not joy, on the mountains.
8 I am about to pour out my wrath on you
and spend my anger against you.
I will judge you according to your conduct
and repay you for all your detestable practices.
9 I will not look on you with pity;
I will not spare you.
I will repay you for your conduct
and for the detestable practices among you.
“‘Then you will know that it is I the Lord who strikes you.” (Ezek. 7:5-9) (see also 7:26)
While God makes it clear in the preceding chapters that He desires “that they may be my people and that I may be their God,” it also clear that punishment must come…
“Though they escape from the fire, fire shall yet consume them…” (Ezek. 15).
He also repeats three times that even if Noah, Daniel, and Job themselves were in the city of Jerusalem, “they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness”.
If it were the case, that these three righteous men were in the city, “they would deliver neither sons nor daughters. [Noah, Daniel, and Job] alone would be delivered, but the land would be desolate” as “sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence” came (Ezek. 14).
As we hear the rhetorical question elsewhere, “can [one] break the covenant and yet escape?”[i]
And yet, at the same time, the book is not without hope.
Also in these chapters, there are great promises to God’s people as a whole – not just those who have been faithful, practicing daily repentance.
In spite of all the fierce judgment that is coming – and I have given you only a taste of what is in the book… – the Lord will “atone for all that you have done” and, He says:
“19 I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. 20 Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God.” (Ezek. 11)
And now, these verses:
“18 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:
“‘The parents eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?”
This proverbial saying was evidently quite popular in Israel at this time. Also quoted in the book of Jeremiah, it meant just this:
The children are experiencing trouble or discomfort for something their fathers had done.
So what is going on here with this question?
Well, the question from God is rhetorical of course.
This means that “Ezekiel is not asking for a direct answer,” rather he is “challenging his audience to defend their shallow attempt to deny their [own] guilt.” (Lutheran Study Bible)
You really think you can blame your parents for what the disaster that is coming upon you now?
In the book of Jeremiah, when that prophet speaks of the restoration of God’s favor, we are told that those redeemed by the Lord will no longer quote this saying or “shrug of personal responsibility for their misdeeds” (Lutheran Study Bible).
In other words, locating problems and faults outside of themselves might be as natural as gasping for breath when oxygen is taken away, but they will nevertheless come to realize that I, and I alone, “am the man.”
So it is by God’s rejection of this common saying or proverb, in both the books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, that we get to the matter of each individual person.
Each one who must, taking account of their own sin, stand before God alone.
Again though… at the same time though…on the other hand though… books like Jeremiah and Ezekiel also force us to recognize that we may indeed be parts of larger groups that are enmeshed in all manner of sin and sinful habits.
…and that this deeply matters to God and should to us as well.
In fact, it is critical for us to recognize that those who stand up against the world and His ways – who resist its allure and influence – are a critical part of God’s plan!
This is why, for example, when the Apostle Paul is encouraging spouses involved in marriages, he says this:
“And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”
And so… we see again that while each individual must stand before God alone[ii], the corporate aspect, “the collective,” the community, the group, “the people” – matters.
….and particularly when it comes to things like marriages and families. And this, of course, should raise another question:
“If we today are being punished by God… if we are experiencing His wrath in our lives….
Does this mean that it is not because of the sins of our ancestors, but because of the sins of the present group of people of whom we are a part?”
Does this mean that the past—other than the sin of Adam and Eve which we know got the ball rolling—doesn’t matter?
Well, not exactly, for here we must speak of a distinction between “generational guilt and generational corruption…”
Generational guilt, or as some might call it, “transgenerational accountability,” (Block, 558-559), would mean that God holds you responsible for the sins of your ancestors, and punishes you on earth accordingly for those sins.
But generational guilt does not exist.
God is even irritated with those who would suggest it does exist by uttering that proverb about the sour grapes…
And yet, insofar as you do not renounce and avoid, the sins of your ancestors… the sins of your parents… you are indeed guilty of generational corruption.
After all, in our text today we see that it is not generational guilt that Israel is being punished for.
It is their present corruption. They have continued in… they have been permitted by God to continue in… the corruption of their parents.
This is what the Lord means when He continuously talks about how He “visit[s] the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me…”
When God said this in the book of Exodus and later on, it was meant as a “warning to adults to guard their conduct because of the implications for their children” (Block, 55). It is not about generational guilt.
We can see this elsewhere in the Penteteuch, for example, the first five books of the Bible. In the book of Deuteronomy, for example, Israel’s civil law says this:
“Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.” (24:16)
And later on, Jeremiah helps us see what is going on more clearly when he says:
“We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord,
and the iniquity of our fathers,
jfor we have sinned against you.” (14:20)
Or, as Ezekiel quite simply puts the whole matter, “like mother, like daughter…”
“The apple doesn’t far from the tree…” we might think.
And yet again, we see that while this might “make sense,” it doesn’t render things “understandable” (air quotes).
For in our text, God is essentially saying:
“Stop blaming your parents for the disaster that is coming upon you now!”
So… as unfair as all of this may seem to us, God really does expect you to overcome the circumstances that you are born into, and to resist what is wrong in the world you are born into…. The world you know….
So what is wrong in your world?
That brings us to today then, doesn’t it?
What can we, do we, know about our sin, about the sins of our group, or the groups we are a part of?
We know that we have the very clear word of God. God has told us clearly in His Word the kinds of things that merit His punishment. We also know from Jesus (in Luke 13:1-5) that whenever evil men or calamity strike, it is a reminder for all people to repent.
We also know from Scripture what sins God held against Israel in the days of Ezekiel:
“He eats at the mountain shrines.
He defiles his neighbor’s wife.
12 He oppresses the poor and needy.
He commits robbery.
He does not return what he took in pledge.
He looks to the idols.
He does detestable things.
13 He lends at interest and takes a profit.”
We also know that today we do not have a clear word from God about when a specific people is being punished for specific sins.
That said, this is not to say that many of us might not come to a rather solid conclusion, have some real confidence… that we, as a people, we as a church, we as a nation, are experiencing punishment from God…[iii]
What sins do you think we have committed which anger God?
Can you know which sins we have committed which anger God?
What about all of the things people in the world, those in the media, are complaining about now?
- is it because cops tend to pull over black people disproportionately we are being punished?
- is it because of what some are calling the “scourage of police violence”? (Breonna Taylor is on the minds of many…)
- is it because of the overly harsh “war on drugs”?
- is it because white people have not acknowledged, or not sufficiently acknowledged, their guilt over race-based chattel slavery, colonialism, and Jim Crowe?
- is it just because those with riches have not taken adequate account and care of those without them?
- is it because of cuts in welfare or health care programs?
- is it because of a disrespect and disregard for the environment?
- is it just because of institutional forces that have a negative impact on minority groups — even if bad intentions are not present?[iv]
Now, in mentioning all of these things I do not mean to suggest that exploring and understanding these topics is not worth our time.
I think responsible and reasonable people should try to do what is best as regards each one of them. They all matter.
At the same time, many of these are highly complicated issues… and few of them seem to offer obvious answers.
People will often disagree – and disagree strongly – about matters such as these.
Perhaps, not even all devout Christians will be able to come to a consensus about which sins in America today are angering God the most…
For my own part, I personally take to heart the words of a friend, who said this to me….
“There is a real tough preaching about the Christian Hope not being in this world, but in the coming fullness of the Kingdom. One can lawfully seek address of grievances, but the second your hope moves to this world (Liberation Theology, Social Gospel) you’ve lost the gospel…The Christian case for reparations is really the one for a Jubilee. Debts forgiven, land returned. It will never happen. But even that just points to what is missing, the true judge who would render true judgements… “The real problem is the loss of the eschatological vision and [help]. This world is a both our Father’s good creation and veil of tears. It owes us nothing. But the Kingdom is near. When that collapses to just this world ‘Grab what you can by any means necessary becomes the rule.’”
I believe with all my heart my friend is wise.
I also believe that even if others don’t think he is wise, there are other things we can know, namely:
God means for us not to focus on our rights, but our responsibilities.
Wherever we are in life, He means for us not to point the fingers at others first, but to self-examine…
Also, I would suggest taking a much more serious look at the basics, the 10 commandments – and judging our current worlds’ circumstances according to these….
Why should this not always be the place we start?
Now, I realize that for many today, even these basics – taught to us from the times we were little imbibing Martin Luther’s Small Catechism – have been thrown into confusion, but that is precisely why they are so important right now.
There is also another thing that we who believe in Jesus Christ can be very, very sure about…
Things can be even more basic.
Have no other gods before him? St. Augustine even said that this commandment, this first commandments, was the key to all commandments. “Love God and do what you will….!”, he said.
Luther agreed, noting that all of our other sins against God’s commandments come from a failure to keep the first. As he put it in the Large Catechism:
“…where the heart is rightly disposed toward God and this commandment is observed, all the others follow.”
This is why, for example, in the book of Revelation, God calls the church back to its First Love.
Don’t let the flame go out, your love grow cold…
Again, in a way, the Grinch movie was right.
We help make others. And we are responsible for all the sins that we have committed against others. For all the ways that we have caused them to sin.
No one, really, could have put it more forcibly than Jesus:
6 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!”
And yet, note this also: the kinds of evils that we are to be accused of are not always going to be the ones that the world might pick, call evil.
Does the world still agree that child and sex trafficking are evil? It seems so…. It seems like most can all get behind a fight this – for the time being, at least….
But what about the sin that God says Ezekiel will be guilty of if he does not take courage in the Lord and get over his fear over the mad crowds?[v]
What about the church’s call to tell the world to repent… to turn to the One True God in faith? As Luther said, what about “picking a fight with the world”?
The world doesn’t want to be told it is wrong. Many Christians do not want to tell the world it is wrong….
But take courage and stand, lest you not stand at all!
And so, as the opportunities approach you, don’t hesitate.
We can’t hesitate.
Because people, deep down, know they are wrong, even as some more violently suppress the truth than others….
And keep in mind this too: Satan—even as he delights to lead men into selfish pleasures—doesn’t just do that.
He will even at times proclaim God’s law Himself. Though with the intent of destroying men’s souls.
How so? By endlessly accusing us of failing to be good Christians… or even of failing to be good humans… Until he drives us to despair, guilt, and death.
No forgiveness or relief at all… he wants a world without such things.
Such is the god of this world!
Only our God, who alone is both strong and good, is different!
Provides and is, in fact, the Way.
God, again, is the One who desires that none should, enmeshed in sinful families and neighbors, perish but eternal life….
Again, as God puts it in Ezekiel:
“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord… For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!”
And so hear the Apostle Paul again, this as he encourages his young charge, Pastor Timothy…!:
Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. 23Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. 24And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
As the 16th century Lutheran pastor Martin Chemnitz put it:
“In Christ a person does not bear the iniquity of the father, because it has been taken away…”
And so again, I say to you:
“In the mercy of Almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you, and for His sake God forgives you all your sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ He gives the power to become the children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit.”
[i] God is not saying that these three men were sinless. He is saying that they were righteous by faith, and that they lived by faith. Repentance was indeed something that characterized their faith…
[ii] “….when many of the old bonds of family, community, and so on disintegrated, the environment of ‘every man for himself”…. (speaking of the Exile, Diaspora) – Hummel, 533
[iii] And here, when it comes to very earthly concerns, these questions naturally arise:
Who do we think are our people?
Who should we think are our people?
Nationally, if we do not think we are really one people, what do we do?
[iv] An idea not worthy of consideration, to be sure: https://twitter.com/WokePreacherTV/status/1306604750188818432 I used to respect Tim Keller a lot but things like this have changed that.
[v] From Ezekiel 3: “I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself…”