Commentary on Ezek 18:1-10, 13, 30-32
Apparently there was a saying among the Israelites:
Fathers have eaten unripe grapes
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.
In addition to today’s reading, we can also find the saying in Jeremiah (31:29). The meaning was clear enough. Whatever wrongs the ancestors had done, their offspring would pay the penalty. We see that the idea was still prevalent in the time of Jesus. One day as he walked along, Jesus saw a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, was it his sin or that of his parents that caused him to be born blind?” To which Jesus replied: “Neither.” (John 9:1-3)
However, both Jeremiah and Ezekiel (not to mention Jesus) reject the idea. Jeremiah says: “Through his own fault only shall anyone die: the teeth of him who eats the unripe grapes will be set on edge” (Jer 31:30). While Ezekiel, quoting Yahweh, says: “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 other words, if any people suffered (as the Israelites were suffering under Nebuchadnezzar at this time), the blame could not be put at the door of their parents or grandparents. Everyone is responsible for the effects of their own wrongdoing – “only the one who sins shall die”.
There then follows a list of actions which can be expected from the virtuous, actions which were constantly violated by the inhabitants of Jerusalem leading eventually to the utter destruction of their city and its Temple and their being either slaughtered or carried away to Babylon in exile.
Among the good things listed are:
Not eating on the mountains. This referred to performing idolatrous rituals on the
shrines in the mountains.
Not raising their eyes to the pagan idols, which Israel was now worshipping
Not having adulterous relations with a neighbour’s wife
Not having sexual relations with a woman during her menstruation. (Contact with
blood was always forbidden to the Jews.)
Not oppressing people.
Giving back a pledge which had been offered when money was paid back after a loan
Not committing robbery.
Feeding the hungry and clothing the naked
Not lending at interest or demanding extra payment for a loan
Judging fairly in a dispute between two people
Living by Yahweh’s statutes and observing his ordinances.
Such a person (irrespective of how badly his predecessors behaved) is a good person and will surely live.
On the other hand (again irrespective of how well a predecessor behaved) if a person violates all these things, he shall surely die. “His death shall be his own fault.”
The reading concludes by Yahweh saying that he will judge “each one according to his ways”. We are then urged to turn away from and be converted from all wrongdoing and there will be no reason to find a person guilty in any way.
“Make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit… For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies… Return and live!”
Perhaps we do not exactly think like the Israelites of those days did but how many times have we been guilty of laying the blame for things we did on other people. “You made me do it!” There is in our society a strong tendency to find scapegoats, to concentrate certain areas of wrongdoing on one or a small group of people.
Today’s reading reminds us that we are wholly responsible for the guilt of our wrongdoing but at the same time let us hear again those words of the Lord: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies.” Jesus told us: “I have come that they may have life – life in greater abundance.” Let us open ourselves to receiving that life.