The sins of the past

Trinity 19, 1 October 2023, St James Colwall

Ezekiel 18: 1–4, 25–32; Matthew 21: 23–32

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

“Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” Ezekiel 18.31

Over the past few weeks Melanie and I have been joining the pupils at The Elms School for their Assemblies. If you haven’t been to the school, it’s worth visiting if you can. The chapel is lovely—it’s a shrunken down parish church with wood panelling and stained glass. Yet, bless them, the children have been given some really tough scripture to grapple with recently. We’ve had Lot’s wife dying after looking back at Sodom.We had Isaac, son of Abraham, happily climbing onto a wooden pyre so he could be sacrificed to God. Not exactly easy texts—especially when the reading was cut off before the children could find out that Isaac was saved! It took Melanie to put their minds at rest!

You may remember my “Goody Baddy” James Bond sermon from a couple of weeks ago. We looked at the prophet Jeremiah trying desperately to save the Israelites and get them to return to God rather than worshipping Baal. He got angry with God because of the abuse he was getting from those he was trying to help. The prophet Ezekiel was also trying to help those same Israelites. This is the time of the Babylonian exile. The Israelites had rebelled against Babylon but were defeated, with Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon pillaged; King Jeconiah [Jessoniah}, his court and senior leaders, including Ezekiel, were taken to Babylon. This was in 597 BC and there is much archaeological evidence supporting the biblical texts. It’s a fascinating and important period in Jewish history and the Hebrew Bible.

As the Elms pupils are discovering, the Bible isn’t always easy. A superficial read of it will certainly give you some useful nuggets. I suspect one the reasons why it continues to outsell every other book printed, is because every reading of it will give something new. And reading the Bible isn’t like picking up the latest Alexander McColl Smith, it takes time and effort, sometimes a very different way of reading, to uncover its meaning. I confess that for years the Old Testament frightened me. It seemed so alien, a culture so far removed from my lived experience as to make little sense. Yet this was a culture into which Jesus was born and lived, one that Paul was an expert on and an important influence in the ancient near east. The New Testament is just that—new, it’s not the only testament.

The wider narrative of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, is an attempt to understand the conditions the Israelites found themselves in. A tacit reading of Exodus would let us believe that generations of Israelites were punished for the sins of their ancestors: “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34.7). This explains why generations of Israelites were subjected to enslavement in Egypt, unsuccessful wars, exile and isolation. God’s punishment passed from parents to children, a reminder of the importance not to sin.

What effect do you think this might have? If you’re already being punished for the sin of others, are you more or less likely to feel obedient to the punisher? The Israelites who rejected and abused Jeremiah may have had a point. Why should they bow down before a God who punishes them for the sins of people they never knew? Perhaps they felt worshipping Baal, enjoying some material benefits of assimilating with the Babylonians, may have improved their lives. If God’s already angry, what does it matter?

Yet what we’re seeing in both Jeremiah and Ezekiel isn’t anger. It’s love. God knows there will be a time when the Israelites respond once again to his call.

‘”The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18.2). This was a proverb that was prevalent at the time. It sums of the perception of ancestral sin. It may have been used as an excuse for sinful behaviour, we don’t know. But it’s the prophet Ezekiel who draws a line in the sand. No more. He reveals God’s true justice: “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”.

And this is why we need to be careful in how we approach the Bible. Yes, in Exodus the text does indeed say that third or fourth generations will be punished, but was that how the Israelites interpreted it? The Talmud, the fundamental and central text of Rabbinic Judaism, which originated around the time of the Babylonian exile, takes a different view. Descendants aren’t being punished by God for the sins of their ancestors, but they are living with the consequences. The sins of the ancestors have an impact on future generations. So what Ezekiel is saying isn’t new – he’s reminding the Israelites that they have a responsibility not to sin, even when living with the consequences of those that sinned before.

I asked you earlier to think back some weeks to my Goodie Baddie sermon. I’m now going to ask you to think back to my first baptism, a couple of Sundays ago. Over the centuries our understanding of baptism has changed. Indeed St. Paul himself had many different views of what it was. There was certainly a time when baptism was seen as a pre-condition for going to heaven. The idea, developed by St. Augustine, is that, because of the Fall of Adam, we have each inherited his sin—original sin. When I was ordained, I signed up to Holy Orders under the 39 Articles of Religion—of which original sin is one. But our understanding of original sin has changed. When I looked at Dexter last week I didn’t see a sinner, I saw an infant with the propensity to sin in the future. That is, as the 39 Articles suggest, we are born with a natural tendency to sin. I haven’t met a non-sinner yet, have you?

Ezekiel really speaks to us today. It’s easy to read into his words the personal—our personal sin, our personal redemption. Yet he was speaking to a people—their collective sin, their collective redemption. And I think this is where we are today. As humans we are drawn to sin, and we live with the legacy of the sins of previous generations. We know what those sins are—colonialism, slavery, exploitation, financial greed, environmental degradation, genocide—the list, unfortunately, goes on. We can contextualise them and recognise the prevailing ideologies of their time, but we must also recognise how they separate man from God.

What is our response? Ezekiel drew that line in the sand—all must take stock of their situation. We are where we are because of the decisions made by generations before us. Yes, there may be practical or political response—financial reparations, re-wilding, better welfare. A French academic noted the different approaches Britain and France take to the history of slavery: Britain, she argued, is tying itself up with colonial guilt whilst France remembers, acknowledges and moves on. As with sin, can we really feel guilty for the acts of our ancestors? That, I suspect, is a conversation to have over coffee later!

 God tells us what our response should be: ”cast away your transgressions … get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Turn then, and live.” Everything else is window-dressing. We cannot be Christ like, walk as his disciples, without that new heart and spirit. The New Testament didn’t dismiss everything that had happened before, the writings and actions of the Israelites, but the early Christian communities acknowledged that past, recognised its failings and sought to create a new way of life for future generations.

What is the legacy we wish to pass on to others?