Sunday closest to September 28 Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32, Psalm 25:1-8, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
The Fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.
Generations of corruption, beginning with kings who worshipped idols and seeping through the cracks of society to erode even the most intimate of relationships. Priests doing double duty, offering sacrifices where it was not lawful to offer them, praying not only to God but to the trees and mountains. Business owners oppressing their workers with unjust wages. Traders using dishonest means to make more money. Lenders taking even what little the poor had to secure their loan. Spouses no longer honouring their marriages but sleeping with other people. Even the least of the people had abandoned the most basic compassion to the needy, refusing to feed and clothe those who were destitute.
The Fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.
Ezekiel speaks to these hopeless people. This proverb shall no longer be said among you. You are not condemned by the sins of a previous generation.
It sure can be tempting to think it though, can’t it?
The place we are in is not fair, the people say. Their ancestors lived for generations in rebellion against God but they had prosperity and strength. But we? We are suffering. God is not just to make us suffer for our ancestors sins. There is no hope for us, because we are shouldering the impossible burden of the national sins and systematic injustices which came before us. How can God expect anything from us? How can we even desire a better future when this is all we see?
In the Torah, the law God gave to his people, the whole people’s prosperity and success was contingent on their continued faithfulness to this law. The Old Testament story focuses largely on the rulers and leaders and holds them ultimately responsible for the failure of all the people of God to uphold his law. If the people of God fail, it is because their kings were disobedient first. The holiness of the people depends on the godliness of the leaders. When the kings compromise on their duty and fidelity to God, the whole society is tempted to sin. This is what happens, like a building collapsing when its foundations are cracked, to God’s people. Generations of disobedience caused those to whom Ezekiel speaks to be in this dismal place.
It wasn’t their fault.
Reading their Torah these people saw a vision for a fulfilling and abundant life, lived in a relationship with God and their neighbors rooted in grace and love. Imagine how wonderful that society would be? Reading this in the midst of the exile makes such a vision look like a fable, an impossibility. The journey which took them to their doom was trodden by generation who were far more important, far more powerful and far wiser. God’s law is all well and good but we already blew it, they might say. The chance we had to live as God’s royal priesthood is gone.
The fathers ate sour grapes. Our teeth are set on edge.
But what has been forgotten in this account? Ezekiel answers. ‘Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.’ God does not only have a relationship for those who have gone before. God does not only draw near to the great women and men of Israel’s story. No! All people belong to him. He is the father of all. The parent and the child, the ancestor and the living, the ruler and the subjects. It is not only the actions of the so-called important people which matter to God. Of course we who sit here today might already think this way. Maybe this is what drives our pursuit of holiness, our prayer lives, and it is certainly one of the reasons we show up to church each week. We have a sense that our relationship with God DOES matter, and matters deeply.
Yet I wonder if like those to whom Ezekiel preaches we might look at our situation as a community, as a nation, and believe that there is a slim chance of a lasting change for the better. We find ourselves in one of the most fractious, conflicted, and divided moments in American and even western civilisation. The last century promised a more just, more connected, and more peaceful society. My parents generation marched and lobbied so that the rule of law set forth in the Constitution would be more equally practiced, especially on behalf of black people. Yet just weeks ago not far from here slogans were chanted against Jewish people which have seldom been heard since the 1930s. I saw the video content. I saw young men who looked like me, screaming things which no one in their right mind would have dreamed of uttering out loud.
My teeth are set on edge, but it was someone else who ate the sour grapes. These issues are upsteam from me. The wounds in our culture are caused by people with more power and influence than someone like me. What difference can I make?
My peers will now have serious conversations about whether they will have sex on the second or third date. We are expected to be instantly sexually available, to whoever wants us, to look like models and to become subject to the whims and desires of people we barely know. Infection rates of Chlamidya, Ghonorrea and Sypellis are at record highs especially amongst young people. Unwanted pregnancies are treated with the same dispassionate clinical solution as a urethra infection. This age of unhindered sexual availability was glamorised by the late Hugh Hefner, of course. This way of life which is now normal was propelled into middle-class acceptability by the icon of a rabbit, with the expectation of life with unlimited access to gorgeous, willing sexual partners page-to-page with smug, high-brow thing pieces. My generation’s teeth have been set on edge. Some else swallowed the sour grapes. Someone with money, influence, media attention. Someone more important than me. We are debating whether to give up our bodies to strangers but its not our fault the world is this way.
Perhaps there are many ways our friends, neighbors, and even we ourselves are grimacing with with disgust and disappointment at the situation we have no choice but to swallow. Yet the Prophet Ezekiel wants his people, and he wants us, to know that the failures of the past are not a life sentence. In his harsh and strident language, there is hope.
Ezekiel does this by reminding us of a simple and basic fact: All people belong to God. The soul of the father and the soul of the son. All people belong to God. The covenant between God and his people is not a thing of the distant past, something which they failed to live up to and now we are condemned to live in the hell they left for us. No, in every generation God is near. His judgement and mercy are always present. As Ezekiel says, if the righteous person turns from righteousness and sins, they will die for their sin. Goodness is not stored up like an investment account. Again, if an evil person turns from their evil and does what is right, they will live. Sin is not something we must repay, as if we could undo all the evil we have done. No, Ezekiel insists that in repentance there is mercy and grace for all of these past sins.
Yet God’s people did not think this was just or fair. In their minds they hold it against God that they were dealt a bad hand. Stuck in Exile, weak and vulnerable how on earth could God expect them to change their ways? The chance to do what is right was a long time ago, and so we must make the best of the desperate place in which we find ourselves. Ezekiel proclaims that their chance has in fact not been and gone, but is ever before them. Every day, in every generation God meets his people and calls to them to turn from their sins and live. There is hope for everyone, because we need not be prisoners to the past. There is hope for everyone, even in exile, even far from the promises of God, that even those who have been dealt the worst possible hand can turn from their ways and have new life in God.
Jesus ministered at a time very much like Ezekiel’s, with God’s people subject to a foreign power, their religion repressed and their ability to fulfil their calling denied them. However there were a group of people who had made it their purpose to try to be as obedient to their faith as they possibly could. These people are called in the Gospels the Priests, or Pharisees, or Elders. They seem to believe that if only they could walk in perfect integrity, then finally the fortunes of God’s people would be reversed and finally they would be saved. The consequences of generations of disobedience and sin could be undone if only people would be perfect law-keepers. These spiritual warriors, fighting for their culture, keep themselves far away from anyone who really does bad things as though sin is a disease which could be caught.
Into the midst of this situation comes Jesus. Jesus brings into sharp clarity what Ezekiel means when he says that the souls of all people belong to God. This is why Jesus seeks out the rejects of Israel, the short hand for this in the Gospels is often ‘the prostitutes and tax collectors’. What does it mean to be prostitute or tax collector in Israel? It means that you have made it your lifelong career to commit adultery and destroy families, and also to become a traitor to your people, extracting money from your neighbors to prop up the Roman regime. These people have so little regard for what the religious leaders are saying that they are willing to walk in direct contradiction of everything they are called to do. When we talk of sinners, these people might be called top of the list. This isn’t one of those accidental sins which happens when we lose our self-control, but a constant decision to do what is known to be evil.
Jesus contrasts these two groups, the Priests and Elders, with the Prostitutes and Tax collectors when he tells the story of two brothers. One is asked to go and work and says they will not, and then changes their minds and goes. The other earnestly promises his father that he will go and do what has been asked, but does not. Jesus tells this story because as in Ezekiel’s day, the people thought that the choice to do righteously or to walk in sin had already passed. The Priests had made their choice, and the Prostitutes theirs. Case closed.
Except Jesus disagrees. He comes into his ministry in Israel and goes to meet these supposed arch-sinners. He goes to them and loves them. He loves them and calls them. And those who were Tax collectors give up their corrupt and treacherous ways. Matthew who writes this Gospel was sitting at his booth and Jesu called to him, come and follow me, and he did. Matthew, the one telling us this story, was the brother who had said to the father that he would not obey. But then Jesus called him and he left all his sins behind. Jesus cares for all souls. He is not interested in the culture-wars and cultish purity of the Priests of his day. He brings God’s word near again to those who had given up. He goes to the sinner and calls, and the sinners are leaving their old lives behind. It seems these people had been living under the lie that the righteous and the wicked were different from one-another, that there existed an unbridgeable gap between the holy and the unholy. Jesus refuses to entertain this. He is God’s Son, and like his Father he cares for each individual. Jesus is not at all pleased with the Priests for that matter. They had not done their job, they had not held out hope to the sinner but had written them off as if there was no hope for them. And worse still, when the very Word of God had come to them, performing miracles and teaching them God’s commandments they had refused to listen to him. Decades of ‘righteousness’ counts for nothing at all because they had turned from righteousness the moment they closed their ears to Jesus.
But, but. Decades of wickedness are forgotten in an instant for those who upon hearing Jesus’ call leave behind their ways and follow. Matthew never had to earn his place in Jesus’ company. Jesus just welcomed him in his love.
Perhaps like those to whom Ezekiel spoke, the Priests would argue that Jesus is not really just or fair. “Jesus” they might complain, “How can you blame us for not listening to you! You seem to strange, so unusual, to far from what we expected”. But Jesus responds: My Father does not rejoice in the death of anyone, but desires that the wicked turn from their wickedness and live. And now you see these sinners turning and finding new life, how on earth can you say that I am not God’s anointed? Isn’t it obvious?”
The spiritual leaders in Israel were pious and precise, exacting and harsh in their moral standards. This is because that is how they though God was. It seems they had forgotten what their Prophets had said – God does not rejoice in the death of anyone. He is not pleased by the death of the wicked. The ministry of Jesus, first began by John the Baptist, brings this into vivid reality.
Jesus goes out to reach those who are far from God and extend to them a gracious call to come and follow him. Unlike the Priests and Elders Jesus didn’t do this by constructing a system of morals and rules, but rather he himself comes near to sinners to lead them into righteousness. And this work continues now throughout all the world, as people who are filled with his spirit – people like you and I – go to out into all the world and invite people to join us as we follow Jesus. The souls of all people belong to God. He has not written anyone off, no one is too far from him that they cannot be saved. The new heart and new Spirit Ezekiel promised becomes a reality as Jesus himself meets people in every place and in every generation. By his word, by calling people to follow, by teaching them Jesus renews old and broken hearts making them joyfully leave behind whatever wickedness in which they thought they were imprisoned.
When we leave this gathering, we are going to walk back into a world of people white-knuckling their way through life, brittle souls who are terrified of getting it wrong. And get it wrong they will, and all their goodness will not count for anything. We will meet those who have been dealt the worst hand possible by fate and fear that the joy and fulfilment for which they were destined is far out of their reach, a lost cause. But when they listen to Jesus and come to follow him, none of their failure will be counted against them – they need only say yes to his call.
I find this hard. I really do. Have you met people? Members of our families, friends, co-workers… Sometimes the odds of them finding the right path look so very slim, their situation seems so dire that it is impossible to hope. But God cares for their lives. The soul of the father and the soul of the son belongs to hm, and he desires that both of these should choose life. And God comes to them himself in Christ to call and teach them how to find that life. And he gives them a new spirit-his spirit-so that they can leave behind the way that leads to death, and step in to the path of life. God desires that all people turn and live, and he has invited us to join him in this work. What a great hope that is.
And I know that when I think of my own life, I know that Christ’s call brought me into a life I never could have imagined. Maybe you do too. And yet still I live in this sad culture beholden to the failures of my ancestors. I don’t think I need to despair over this, because no matter where I find myself God cares for me as I am, and constantly calls me to come and follow.
Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.