Another student acted up, you got the detention, the teacher got the blame. This is how things sometimes played out back when I was in school. When everyone was punished for the sins of one student you couldn’t help but think the teacher was being unfair. Life can be like that. People make bad decisions and we bear the consequences of those bad decisions. We conclude that God is being unfair.
In Ezekiel chapter 18 we encounter God’s people having a similar experience. God made a covenant with a particular people who would enjoy God’s protection if they kept their side of the covenant, but who could expect trouble if they did not. They mostly did not, so things did not go well for them. They ended up losing their land to the Babylonian empire and many of the people, including the prophet Ezekiel, were exiled to Babylon. Before long a proverb became popular as a summary of the situation: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2). This proverb speaks of the parents eating the food, and yet the children experience the result. Applied to God’s people, the former generations were the ones who sinned against God and broke the covenant, yet the current generation is the one that suffers. That is not fair. Former generations acted up, the current generation got the detention, and God gets the blame. The proverb expressed a growing chorus of resentment toward God for being unfair. Perhaps you can relate to that feeling when your life is made miserable thanks to the sins of others.
As Ezekiel 18 unfolds, the record is set straight:
The word of the Lord came to me: 2 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. 4 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. Ezekiel 18:1-4
At this point I encourage you to read chapter 18 in its entirety. Here are some things to think about:
First, we can look to the future with hope because God relates to each of us as individuals and not according to the sins of others.
Verse 4 points to the judgement of God as being a future thing that concerns each individual: “it is only the person who sins that shall die”. Based on past and present experiences we can fall into a very fatalistic approach to life. However, the future can be radically different. In Christ, it will be. In the midst of the hard battles of life, know that God’s love for you has the power to shape your future. God is not being unfair when you face trouble, He does not owe you a perfect present. The suffering you experience today as a result of someone else’s sin is not God’s punishment of that person heaped on you. It is a result of living in a fallen world were things can and do go wrong. God’s judgement on you as an individual is yet to come.
Second, take responsibility.
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? Ezekiel 18:25
God’s people were in exile, not because they were experiencing the consequence a previous generation deserved, but because they were experiencing the consequence every generation deserved, including their own. There is no one who deserves an ongoing relationship with God on their own merit. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). There is a coming judgement. No one on that day will say “God, you are being unfair in your judgement,” for each person who stands condemned will recognize that they are receiving just what they deserved. When we face the consequences of the sins of others, we can take a look and see the consequences others are facing because of ours.
Third, look to Jesus.
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? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live. Ezekiel 18:31-32
Those final verses of the chapter strike a very hopeful note for God’s people in exile. Here is an opportunity to be the generation that gets it right, that shakes off the sin and rebellion that plagued every preceding generation. It is a hopeful note, that is, until they try it. I can imagine their thinking; “Turn from sin, get a new heart and a new spirit? Great, something else for us to fail at!” It would be like someone saying to me “cast away your love for chocolate, and get an appetite for only fruits and vegetables.” Easier said than done.
However, there is good news. Ezekiel 18 points beyond itself to Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The commandment of Ezekiel 18:31, is a promise in 36:26
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
This promise is ultimately fulfilled through Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. When our lives are made miserable by the sins of others and we blame God, remember that Jesus offers to bear your sins. Repentance should not be seen as a stressful exercise in trying to get everything just right, but an amazing opportunity to leave behind the sin that messes life up and and enter into a relationship with the One who fixes everything up.
When it feels like someone else messes up, we bear the consequence, and so God should get the blame, remember that we messed up, Jesus bore the consequence, God gets the glory.
(All Scripture references are from the NRSV)