Ezekiel chapter 33 is about many things. Many people get hung up on the ease of assigning a label to Ezekiel, that of Watchman. One commentary I read makes that the theme of Ezekiel chapter 33. If I had to summarize this section down, I’d go with “God is not in the business of keeping score”; more on this later. As I said before, this chapter has many themes.
In the last blog entry, I stated that the first six verses were about communication and answering the question, “Who is responsible for the state I’m in?”
Moving on to verse 7 and beyond, it would be easy to look at this as simply Ezekiel’s calling being explained – he is the watchman, woe to any and all who do not heed, etc, etc. However, I read a much more important theme and one that is very relevant to us living our lives in the world. FAIRNESS. Fairness is what is happening in this explanation.
Ezekiel is being told, and thus the elders of the Hebrews are being told, that there are no special cases, no instances that what applies to you does not apply to me. Just because a person is a member of the holy elite, does not mean that the same standards are not applied. It’s clear when Ezekiel writes, “…If I tell you to warn, and you do not, then blood is on your hands”. God does not play favorites, because God is not a respecter of persons. This is a difficult concept for humans to get their arms around, but it is a common theme throughout all of Ezekiel’s writings.
We are then presented with an interesting adage making its way around the Israelites living in captivity. Ezekiel records it like this, “Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?” Elements of depression and self pity are laced through this, but also a hint of disavowal or abandonment of future responsibility. Almost a resignation of what is as a permanent condition.
But the question, How can we live? still remains. And here we come across one of the rarely mentioned gems of the Old Testament, or Biblical scripture as a whole. God tells Ezekiel something significant: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.”
So firstly, Ezekiel’s insight into the nature of God is that God is not sitting around with a scratch pad gleefully counting up transgressions and just waiting to pull the trigger on furious judgments and penalties. Instead, God is expecting that people make choices, and continue to choose. God is hoping that people look at their lives and choose a path that leads towards a pattern of living that is consistent with the themes of justice, of fairness, of mercy, of faith.
Secondly, this is an absolutely unmistakable marker for free will and expression of free conscience, that rejects the notion that God is looking for a flock of minions that blindly do His bidding without question nor understanding. In fact, Ezekiel phrases this as a plea from God’s own mouth asking the question, “Why will you die?…” This is choice and nothing other than choice. Ezekiel calls his people to examine their ways for what they are. Reflect, examine, weigh, discern, judge, and then turn, make a change for the better,… and live. Are we not offered the same expectation, the same opportunity for expression of will, the same portent of our choices?
It is the same for each one, and that is Justice.
The final two points of this section of Ezekiel 33 come back to the idea that God is not an accountant of misdeeds but instead is a God of Justice and Fairness. For the first point, it is important to keep in mind that God has His own ideas of what is just. The same goes for what is fair.
If we look at verse 12, at first blush this seems to be a bewildering formula that borders on unfair, especially to those who view scripture as a line-by-line codex of laws and better-does. How can this be fair? Someone who does good their entire life, and then makes one slip-up and they are condemned? Oh, and someone spends an entire life living the high-life without regard to anyone else and then gets a free pass just because they turn over a new leaf at the very end? That’s not right. (This is also the specific root of the Last Rites, incantation – an attempt to wedge someone into heaven on the last open seat ticket). Whaaaatt!!?
But that is not what Ezekiel is trying to convey because, it would imply that God is a score keeper, a craggy accountant sitting somewhere up in heaven with a clipboard making little checkmarks for every little action we do. Instead, Ezekiel is trying to point his people towards a state of living, a condition of community, where choices make a difference, and the value of another soul matters, a place where everyone has a stake in the balance of good and evil. Notice the examples that Ezekiel trots out to demonstrate a turning from bad choices: the returning of unfair collateral for a loan, the return of stolen property of funds are the top two on his list. Fairness.
This mental/spiritual framework leads us to a conclusion that it is a state of living that God is trying to elevate his people, all of his creation for that matter, towards. This is what Ezekiel refers to as “the decrees of life”. In this sense, then, if you are living in the good way, and deviate away, then you detach from that state of holiness, that flow of the decrees of life, and are now on a path away from life as described earlier. If you are not living in a good way, and turn, then you attach to that state of holiness, that flow of the decrees of life and are now on a path towards life as described earlier. In this framework, it is all fairness as it applies equally to all people as God sees them.
And as for Justice? Well, this is God’s own complaint. As Ezekiel informs us, the Hebrew people that are in Babylonian captivity seem prone to expressing their frustration in the form of blame: God is not Just. Verses 17 -20 are God’s rebuttal against that charge and a very direct explanation of the process of judgment from on high. It ends with a promise that God will indeed reserve judgment to Himself, and that He will keep on judging in His own Just way, ….according to our own actions.
So in the end, it comes down to our choices, our agency, our sense of living in a good way. Who is responsible for my situation? I guess I am.
We’ll finish up with Chapter 33 next time. Lots of stuff in here, but it’s all good. Hang in there.