St. Matthew and the Angel, Rembrandt, c. 1661, Louvre
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 27, 2020
We return today to the time of the exile in Babylon. It is, in some ways, the most impressive story in the history of the Jewish People. As we have seen in so many readings during the year, the leaders of the Jews were deported to Babylon from 597 to 587 BC. After the Assyrians defeated the Babylonians in 537 BC, the Jews were invited to return to Jerusalem to become the Assyrian colonial administration. Last week we read from Isaiah who wrote at the beginning of this return, today we read from Ezekiel who was among the very first to go into exile in 597 BC. As with Isaiah, he has much to teach us that is relevant to our time.
We know a great deal about Ezekiel. His book reads like an autobiography. That he was deported so early shows that he was a man of some skill and value, and he used those skills to begin a school in captivity to keep the traditions of the people alive. Whatever his role in Jerusalem, he dates his call as a prophet to 593 BC four years after his deportation. He continued prophesizing until 571 BC. The final edition of this text was completed around 550 BC. Let us remember that he relates the vision of the dry bones (Ez 37:1-14), a prophecy that the Jewish people who were as dead and brittle as bones in the desert would come to live again. This was not even a dream until the Assyrian victory. He is clearly a prophet in the usual, if somewhat inaccurate, sense of knowing the future but, as we shall see today, he is a prophet as well in calling people to repentance and conversion.
This week’s passage occurs at the end of Chapter 18, but we will need to start at the beginning of the chapter.
The LORD asks Ezekiel the meaning of the proverb:
Fathers have eaten green grapes,(Ez 18:2)
thus their children’s teeth are on edge
Before Ezekiel could answer the LORD says:
As I live, says the Lord GOD:(Ez 18:3–4)
I swear that there shall no longer be
anyone among you who will repeat this proverb in Israel.
For all lives are mine;
the life of the father is like the life of the son,
both are mine; only the one who sins shall die.
In order that there be no doubt as to his meaning, the LORD spends the next 16 verses clearly drawing the consequences of this. Only the person who sins will be held accountable.
This is summed up with:
Only the one who sins shall die.(Ez 18:20)
The son shall not be charged with the guilt of his father,
nor shall the father be charged with the guilt of his son.
The virtuous man’s virtue shall be his own,
as the wicked man’s wickedness shall be his own.
Why is this important? Ancient people relied on each other so much that they developed a sense of corporate responsibility. This was particularly true with families. Often this is just a reflection of reality. Even today if parents fall on hard times, the children are affected as well. Official Judaism had a more nuanced view of this.
You shall not bow down to them or worship them;(Ex 20:5)
for I the Lord your God am a jealous God,
punishing children for the iniquity of parents,
to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me
The key here is “to those who reject me.” Only the children who maintained their parents’ sin, here of worshiping pagan gods, would be punished.
We read as well in Deuteronomy:
Parents shall not be put to death for their children,(Dt 24:16)
nor shall children be put to death for their parents;
only for their own crimes may persons be put to death.
Yet blaming bad events on the sins of others is a convenient part of folk religion. We see it in the New Testament and in the eternal popularity of astrology. (The fault is in our stars not in ourselves.)
We can see how attractive this might be for a people in exile. They could comfort themselves with the thought that they were not guilty personally but paying for the sins of their ancestors. This reveals first and most importantly that they did not know the LORD. They did not understand the depth of his love for them.
Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked?(Ez 18:23)
says the Lord GOD.
Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live?
They also did not understand that they could always turn towards God and be filled with this joy. So uncomprehending were they that they mistook this love for injustice.
You say, “The LORD’S way is not fair!”(Ez 18:25)
Hear now, house of Israel:
Is it my way that is unfair, or rather,
are not your ways unfair
As we saw before, Ezekiel did not believe that the Jewish people were completely destroyed – simply dry and dead bones rotting in the sun but would be reborn. Only those who sought forgiveness and redemption would have a place in this new Israel. The past is no excuse.
Cast away from you all the crimes you have committed(Ez 18:31)
and make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.
Why should you die, O house of Israel?
He speaks of this latter:
A new heart I will give you, and(Ez 36:26)
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.
Here he shows that they will be reborn not merely resuscitated. The new Jerusalem will be different and better than before, but they will need to repent to get there.
This offer is made during special times in the history not only of the Jews but Christians.
We are, I think, experiencing one such time now. COVID has been our exile. Indeed, our exile may have been more dangerous than that of Babylon. Things were going very well for us and there is a temptation to try to simply set the clock back. This will fail and then we can say that it is not our fault. If we do this, we too will refuse to accept both the love and the power of Jesus. It is through only through his Spirit that we become a people and can be fashioned anew.
We are the same people, and we have the same God who offers us a new spirit and a heart of flesh.