Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Philippians 2:1-4 (5-13) 14-18
Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins, he shall die.
The soul who sins will die.
I must confess that my newest guilty pleasure is watching the Dr. Phil Show. It can get a little crazy, but at least it doesn’t go over the line like some other similar talk shows. Dr. Phil is accused of practicing pseudopsychiatry, and perhaps he is, and there’s always a certain amount of shock involved, but in the end I believe he is really trying to help people.
One thing that is common on his show, as well as many of the other daytime shows, is the tendency to play the blame game. The people who are interviewed will often point fingers. The teenagers say it is all the parent’s fault. The husbands blame the wives. Meanwhile the parents or the wives think they are innocent and place the entire blame on the other party. In the end Dr. Phil shows how there is plenty of fault to go around. Broken relationships are never one sided.
The blame game is not limited to personal relationships. Look at the headlines and you’ll see that we are suffering from so much brokenness in the world and everyone is trying to point the fingers at everyone else. The reality is that we are all sinners and we are all at fault in some way. As we draw near to the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses, many point to his writing against the Jewish people of his day and blame him for Adolph Hitler. Luther was not gracious toward the Jews for many reasons, not the least of which was his frustration that they couldn’t see Jesus as the Messiah, but much of what he said was cultural. Everyone in his day had trouble with the Jews. He didn’t call for their murder and despite his harsh words would have stood with Dietrich Bonheoffer in opposition to the extermination of a whole nation.
Hitler claimed to be Luther’s kind of Christian, but he wasn’t a Christian at all. He misappropriated Luther’s words and used them to do the unthinkable. Yet, Luther is still being blamed for the evil that happened in Germany in the 1940’s. There are plenty of reasons why Luther was not the perfect Christian, but he can’t be blamed for Adolph Hitler. Hitler was to blame for the things he did, especially misrepresenting what it means to be a Christian.
The proverb represented in today’s Old Testament lesson may point back to a verse from Exodus. “I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and on the fourth generation of those who hate me.” This is what is known in some circles as the generational curse. In this, it is claimed, that the children will experience the punishment for all that has been done wrong. We still suffer from the original sin, born into the world as sinners because of the actions of our father Adam and mother Eve.
This is seen more clearly in today’s world in impoverished communities. The children certainly do suffer from the sins of their parents. How many children are living in subpar housing because their fathers have committed crimes? Those fathers are usually following the path they were taught from fathers who also were criminals. The children follow the same footsteps, joining gangs or doing drugs. Too many women are on welfare because they became pregnant as teenagers and have no other means of support. Their daughters learn that this is the life they will live and they follow down that same path. The children, their children, and generations to follow do not see that life can be any different, so they continue doing the same old thing.
There are those who claim that they don’t have a choice. Some blame society for making it impossible for them to get out of the cycle. Others point to the scripture from Exodus and claim that they are suffering because their fathers sinned. They, as the people in Ezekiel’s day, believe the proverb, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” In today’s passage, Ezekiel tells the people that God has commanded them to reject that proverb. “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins, he shall die.”
The text that is not in our lesson for today (Ezekiel 18:5-24) lists a bunch of sinful behavior such as worshipping false gods and disobeying the commandments, showing that a righteous father can bring up an unrighteous son, and an unrighteous father can bring up a righteous son. We see this in the stories of the kings of Israel. One king finds favor in the sight of God, but the son does what is evil. Soon, perhaps not the next generation but eventually, another son was righteous, turning to God.
Should the righteous son pay for the sins of his father? God says no. He says, “The soul who sins, he shall die.” But the people say, “The way of the Lord is not equal.” This word is also translated “just.” The proverb is taken as law, and so any grace on God’s part is seen as injustice. This is ironic coming from people who were not practicing justice. They thought that the generational curse was just, and thus the children should suffer for the sins of their fathers. Just as many are expected today to make reparations for sins that were committed against ancestors by ancestors. Justice is demanded from today’s generation who is expected to pay for the sins that were committed many generations ago.
There is reason to be concerned. We live in a fallen and sinful world. Human beings are imperfect and fail to do the things God expects us to do. We are unrighteous and unjust. Each and every one of us. We all deserve God’s wrath; we all deserve to experience His justice. Instead of pointing our fingers to our fathers or to the forefathers of our neighbors, it is up to us to face the reality of our own sinfulness. We aren’t going to solve today’s problems by blaming our neighbors for yesterday’s sins.
In so much of God’s relationship with His people, the blessings and the consequences seemed absolutely determined by the actions and words of their forefathers. They were a people dependent on national identity and relationship to the past. Yet, we also see in the lives of those forefathers that God is interested in a personal relationship with individuals. God cares about each of us and we will experience His mercy and justice as individuals because He loves each of us as individuals.
God put a halt to the blame game. Each one receives justice for their own sin; each person pays the price for their own unwillingness to obey God’s Word. Though we can talk in terms of each sinful action and the consequences we suffer from our wrong living, the sin of greater concern is that which separates us from God. This is our natural inclination to be our own god, to take control of our own life and to seek justice and fairness according to our own ideology. This is the sin that sets us against God and His will. While some of our burdens can be blamed on the sins of our forefathers, we should be more concerned about our relationship with God.
John the Baptist, and later Jesus, called the people of Israel to a more personal relationship. They could not blame suffering on the past or receive blessing through heritage. The Kingdom of God was given to those who believe, who had a change of heart and made God be the center of their lives. God loves us and He wants us to reach out to Him, to seek Him, to follow Him. He wants us to raise our hands in worship and in prayer. He longs to embrace us as His own.
When my children were small there were times when I was, perhaps, a bit too busy when they came looking for attention. They would hold up their hands, wanting to be picked up for a little snuggle. They usually wanted this attention when I was busy in the kitchen cooking dinner or on the telephone. It was almost as if those were the moments when the children felt as though I had forgotten them, so they reached out for my love.
It is amazing sometimes to see how much like children we are when it comes to our relationship with God our Father. We have moments when we feel as though He has forgotten us, as if He is too busy to take care of our needs. In today’s Psalm the psalmist asks God to forget the sins of his youth, but also to remember him. We not only want to be forgiven, we want to know that God remembers us. We reach out to Him with our beings, lifting our hands and our souls up to Him, as a child might lift his or her hands to a mother.
The trouble is that we are always trying to get to the top of that garbage heap, most concerned about ourselves and unwilling to become humble. We are so caught up in blaming others that we miss out on the opportunity to be loved by God and to receive His blessings on our lives. The greatest blessing, God’s grace, is found in forgiveness. As we learned a few weeks ago, God calls us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Where is the forgiveness when we blame our neighbors for the sins of their fathers?
We think that we are different than those who lived in biblical times, but we have the same broken hearts and perishable flesh. The people to whom Ezekiel was speaking knew and understood the scriptures from a point of view that they were specially chosen and preferred by God. So, they saw suffering as a punishment for sinfulness. If someone was sick or poor, they were so because they’d done something wrong. Those who were righteous were given the blessings of God. We think with that same mind.
There are those who think that it is unfair that the sinners might be saved. We find it hard to accept the lesson of last week, where the generous landowner paid the late workers the same amount as those who worked through the heat of the day. Yet, in salvific terms, the deathbed conversion is as welcome in heaven as the person who was baptized as a baby and who lived the Christian faith for their whole lives. According to the Gospel lesson for this week, the one converted on the deathbed might just be more welcome than the lifelong Christian.
I suppose that doesn’t sound fair, but listen to the words of Christ, “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first, and said, ‘Son, go work today in my vineyard.’ He answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind, and went. He came to the second, and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but he didn’t go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” So, what’s the answer? Which of the two did the will of the Father? The one who came to obedience late, or the one that said the words but never really obeyed?
Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “It is easy to think that by making a promise you have at least done part of what you promised to do, as if the promise itself were something of value. Not at all! In fact, when you do not do what you promise, it is a long way back to the truth.” We are cautioned to be careful that we do not say “Yes” too quickly, because it is too easy to break those promises we make. But we are also called to discern the work that needs to be done so that we do not miss out on the opportunities we’ve been given to live as God has called us to live.
The first son represents the ones who initially said “Yes”; they are like the chief priests and teachers of the law who were religious but who refused to do the work of the Father (to believe in Jesus.) The second son represents those who initially said “No way, I like what I’m doing too much!” but who later realized their mistake and believed. The sinners were the ones who would receive the Kingdom because they were the ones who did the work of believing in Jesus. It might not seem fair according to the ways of the world, but God is righteous and judges according to His good and perfect justice forgives us for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ. We can’t even forgive our neighbors for the sins of their fathers. Who is unjust?
The chief priests and elders thought they had the authority to speak for God, yet they were acting on their own authority. They had interpreted God’s Law in a way that made it a burden for the people that was impossible to carry. Even they only carried the burden as far as it was convenient, but condemned the people for their unrighteousness. They took the authority given to them by God and made it their own. Instead of speaking in God’s voice for the sake of the people, they spoke their own voices for their own sakes. They made living for God a self-serving endeavor.
Many today talk about justice, but is it really? Or have they taken upon themselves the authority to blame neighbors in a self-serving and unforgiving way?
The chief priests and elders wanted to know by what authority Jesus was speaking and doing his work. He turned the question back on them, asking by what authority John the Baptist worked. They wouldn’t answer because they didn’t believe it was by God’s authority, but they knew that the people would rebel if they said so. Jesus then told them this parable, showing them that the one who truly believes God’s messenger is the one honoring the king. They didn’t believe John, and therefore were like the son that said “Yes” but did not do what was asked. The people believed John and turned to God. They found God’s forgiveness even though it seemed like they did not deserve it. Isn’t that Grace?
We are all judged according to our hearts. The soul that sins will die. There may be those today who still carry the sins of their fathers, who have followed in his father’s footsteps, continuing the injustices of the past. God will see their sin and will deal with them in His way. We may not like His answer; they may be forgiven based on their faith in Jesus Christ. Who are we to hold on to sins that God has forgiven? Or to judge people according to sins that were never theirs to begin with? God judges each man or woman as individuals.
Paul tells us that our attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ. That attitude is one of humble submission to God’s Will. As we look at the life of Jesus Christ, and more particularly His death, it is hard to imagine why anyone would die for the sake of sinners. If we truly consider our failures in light of justice as we know it, it was completely unfair for Jesus to die for our sins. Yet, Jesus did not simply die because we can’t control ourselves; He died because we are separated from our Father. He died for forgiveness, not for each individual sin but because I am incapable of willfully obeying His Word. He died to reconcile God to His people. Whatever has happened in history is no concern; the father’s sin will not kill the child. Christ made it possible for all men to live in relationship with God the Father and to receive his blessings. Jesus willingly gave up the splendor of heaven for the muck of earth.
Jesus put aside the glory of heaven to become like us. He came from heaven, sent by God and given great power and authority. He was perfect in every way, generous, knowledgeable and loving. He was the Son of God! But Jesus never boasted about who He was, He lowered Himself to be like a servant and referred to Himself as the Son of Man. He willingly went to the cross and died for our sake. Paul encourages the Christians in Philippi to have the same mind as Christ with the words of an ancient Christian hymn (verses 5-11). The “Kenosis” hymn was a creed in which the early church confessed their faith that Jesus humbled Himself for our sake. “Kenosis” means “to empty”; Jesus emptied Himself of that which made Him equal with God to be a man like us.
We respond to Jesus’ humility with the realization that if Jesus, who was the Son of God, could be humble, we should also. We are certainly no better than Jesus or anyone else for that matter. In this way we can be just like our Lord Jesus Christ, humble before the Lord and each other.
The temple leaders didn’t know what it meant to be humble. They ignored John and they accused Jesus. John came with a message of repentance, “Turn to God!” Jesus came with the same message, but He knew that it was impossible for man to do the will of the Father. Only Jesus could make it possible. Paul knew that he could not save anyone by his own power, but that sharing the truth of Christ would bring faith to all who hear and believe. It is by faith we are saved.
It is by God’s grace that we live in faith. Thanks to Christ Jesus our relationship with God has been restored and we have been called to trust in Him. In faith we can sing praise to God even in the midst of our troubles. We can turn to the Psalms to seek comfort and peace when the world around us seems to be falling apart. David sang, “To you, Yahweh, do I lift up my soul.” The world is filled with injustices and we should work to reconcile neighbors to neighbors. We are called to bear one another’s burdens, but not to lay upon others the burdens of sin from the past.
It all begins with faith. God will judge; it doesn’t always seem fair, but we can trust that God is just and good and He will always do what is right. Thank goodness, because if He meted out justice according to the ways of the world, we would all deserve to suffer His wrath. Thankfully, we are made righteous by believing in Jesus and by His grace we are saved. By His obedience we are forgiven. By His life we are given eternal life.
We are nearing the end of the season of Pentecost. It has been a time of learning what it means to be a Christian. An ongoing theme over the past few weeks has been about trusting God. We trust God to do what is right. We trust God to be merciful. We trust God to be just. We trust God to save. We trust God to lead, instruct and teach us how to live. We trust that God will give us that mind of Christ, so that we can live as He has called us to live.
We trust that God is active in the world today, not a passive being that set the ball rolling at some point in history. He knows each of us. He loves us all. He wants us to be saved. He calls us, guides us, and helps us so that we might also be active in the world. The first work is to believe, but in faith we continue to constantly work out our salvation. It is not by our own power or authority that we can do this, but it is God who works in us as we humble ourselves before Him. In trust we can pray as the psalmist, seeking His help to do all He has called us to do. God is active for our sake so that we’ll be active for the sake of others, not in judgment but in grace.
So let us have the mind of Christ, humble and obedient before God. Let us hear His messenger and turn to Him, learning and following His Word. Let us trust that God is fair, in His way, and that He will be faithful to His promises for our sake and for the sake of the world. For God does not want any to die. We all belong to Him and He desires that we will all will know and experience His love and mercy into eternity.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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