Ezekiel Blog: Time for a gardening story

Looking back over the flow of the Book of Ezekiel so far, there has been motion away from the presumed home base of Jerusalem for the children of Israel.  My framework of approach has been to see these observations by Ezekiel through the eyes of one who was trained specifically in the ways and traditions of Moses.  And then we come to Ezekiel chapter 17, where apparently it is now story time:  Two Eagles and a vine.

The reality is that we’re at the end of a 2 year time period in which Ezekiel has been experiencing these visions. With this being the case, we are treated to sort of a summary of conclusions and reiterations of cause and effect.

Getting back to Chapter 17 and our parable, as in the case of every parable, there is always the action, and then the observations about that action; the morale of the story.  Since Ezekiel is a true prophet, there are several points that can be inferred from this story.  As usual, he is speaking at several levels at once.

Chapter 17 is actually broken into 4 distinct sections.
Vs 1-8   The actual Parable complete with study/discussion questions in verses 9 & 10.  Isn’t  that nice?
Vs 12-15 The Explanation, again complete with study/discussion questions
Vs 16-21 Prophecy of what God’s actions will be and what the results from poor choices will yield
Vs. 22-24 Prophecy of the restoration of the purity of Faith

Rather than retell the parable and summarize – which is what all the commentaries seem to do, I thought I’d remark on some interesting connections and conclusions that Ezekiel seems to be spoonfeeding us. As I mentioned earlier, Ezekiel seems to be speaking at several levels. So, in bullet point fashion, here is what I see that Ezekiel is most concerned about:

1. The point that jumps right off the page first is clearly about “Commitment” or the act of breaking a covenant. Covenant is a topic that starts in Genesis and is prominent throughout all the books of Moses, what is also referred to as the Torah. In short, breaking one is not cool. If you are going to break a simple covenant with one person, how will God know that you intend to keep the covenant you make with him in sacred space.

2. Transplanting is a well-known method, even then, for preserving the good core of a plant, while removing it from a bad or unproductive environment. This parable is a way of portraying God as a caring gardener trying to preserve the precious nature of Israel’s faith but clear out all the negative factors. In other words, this entire book of Ezekiel is not just about retribution, judgement and punishment. This is the answer to the question: Why??

3. Babylon – the city of Merchants – is portrayed as a lesser of two evils when compared to Egypt at the time. God’s message to Ezekiel was that, at least during captivity, they would be allowed to return to basics of their faith and renew what was started when Moses led them forth from Egypt. This would not always be so, of course, but God would provide a way forward when faith would eventually be penalized.

4. Ding, Ding, Ding –Spoiler Alert– This very section of Ezekiel must have been what Jesus was referring to when he made the speech about “A house divided” wherein either you serve one master, or you serve the other master. Yet another link between the ministry of Jesus, his very teachings, and the message of the prophets of the Old Testament.

5. A glimmer of hope at the very end – or perhaps a foretelling of the Messiah. After all, a tree grows up, not down. Therefore, a lineage of Kings would be represented as growing up through the generations. The very tippy-tip-top of the tree would be the tenderest, most vulnerable, most recent version of the lineage of kings.

From the perspective of the people of Jerusalem, they were being taken away from everything that was good, everything that they knew. From God’s perspective, He was taking them away from a toxic environment and transplanting them to some clear soil for temporary holding in order to let the plant heal.

Are you being transplanted? Was I? When I thought things were really good, was it really a toxic situation in disguise? Was it not health for my growth, and just maybe God new better? Did I resist, did I fight?

 

Ezekiel blog: Little gems

Ezekiel chapter 16 – final stretch

My wife is a big fan of watching the BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice”.  Over the years of watching that production with her, I’ve also developed an appreciation for period pieces like that story.  One of the things that made watching that mini-series so fascinating was observing how every time we followed the story, my wife would recognize some new gem of insight about the motivation of the characters, or extract some new connection between events.  She would express such excitement about these discoveries and insist that I get it too.   Yes, guys, real men can watch chick-flicks.

What does this have to do with the end of Ezekiel though?   In many ways, verses 35-63 are like reading a very complicated story over and over again.  The same context is repeated eg.  Israel had a bad history, current practices were terrible, and God enacts judgment followed swiftly by punishment.  Ezekiel takes us through this as if he’s trying to be sure that we get the circumstances. No disrespect intended, but he seems to have been very anal that way.

But along the way, we are treated to little bits of gained insight that Ezekiel has prized from the narrative.  Here are some of them that stand out to me:

1. It is because Israel did not remember her humble origins that God brings it all down on her head.  So: remember where you come from.

2. “Hey, you wanted all these lovers and all this attention?  Then I’m not going to step in and stop it when things get totally out of control.  Maybe an overdose will scare you enough.  ”  Yikes, hope I don’t need an intervention like this in my life.

3. God really doesn’t like proverb quoters.   I’m not talking about the book of Proverbs, but those annoying little platitudes that really don’t express any kind of real theology or faith, but are used as pseudo-religious bandaids of the moment.  Proverb-quoters….you know who you are.  Pay attention to this chapter for real.

4. Crimes of Sodom:   Arrogant, over-fed, and unconcerned.  Haughty and unresponsive to the poor and needy.   We all know what happened there.  Uh-huh, ‘nough said.

5. Ok, I know I said ‘nough said, but Sodom only measured up to HALF of how bad Israel was being at this point. That’s HALF as bad, and they got blown off the map.  What were you saying about God’s patience?

6. “Israel ! You broke our covenant! ”   God takes covenants very seriously.  It’s a big deal….and something God will work very hard to create, protect, rebuild, and recreate when necessary.

7. More on covenants, this is the one thing that God believes can actually be healed with Israel.  It’s the one thing in the entire chapter that is discussed in future tense.  God says He “will remember” and He “will establish”.   The object here?!  If he can find hope in such a disaster of a situation, then he can find hope for each one of us.

8. My anger will END. I will turn away my anger and be jealous no longer. When I make atonement for all that you have done…. etc. etc.

Can you imagine what a boost this must have been to Ezekiel who is still sitting out there in the desert wondering what is to become of his people who have been chased from their ancestral home and away from their spiritual center place? To hear that there will be a time when the covenant will be renewed and a time when anger will be turned away. At last some good news and something to hope for.

I’ve heard again and again how the Old Testament seems to be focused on an “Angry” and “Vengeful” God. In this chapter, I see quite the opposite. This story is about a long suffering and patient beyond patient God. He wants to bring His anger to an END. And can anyone doubt what He has in mind for the phrase “atonement for all that you have done”? There is a group within the Christian community who dismiss and ignore the Old Testament because it appears to have little to do with the New Testament message. From my perspective, I find a rich connection between the two collections of written scripture….as did the original believers in the message of Hope.

And now, I am done with Chapter 16. Thanks for hanging in there with me if you are reading along.

 

 

Ezekiel blog: Still in Chpt 16, and how not to gain popularity.

I remember working for a very large company once in Wisconsin.  The management there was fond of using the phrase, “Will this be good for the business?”  This seems to have been their only moral compass to guide their decision making process.  Not surprisingly, when the company stock took a small dip, the managers walked out into the main office floor and randomly fired enough people right there, on the spot, in order to make up the cash flow deficit. These people were happily sacrificed for the supposed “good” of the company.

Which brings me to the fact that I’m still digging around in Ezekiel chapter 16.  There is so much here and symbolism at so many levels, it’s taking a long time to sort through it all.   The commentaries are almost useless in many instances, many of them falling back to literal association attempts.  I’m hovering somewhere between vs 20 and vs 35.  Ezekiel is expanding on the accusations against Israel.

We are pressed constantly to appreciate the odd condition of prostitution that Jerusalem had created. In the middle of all this there is a reference to the sacrifice of their children, to which again the commentaries make a direct reference to actual child sacrifice of pagan religions in the area. I’m not so sure that is what Ezekiel is focusing on.

To be sure, the children are always targeted when religious extremity rears its fanatical head. Just look through news, current and past, and you will find religious zealots attacking schools, kidnapping children.  Add to that the political extremes which constantly try to pass laws of one flavor of another which affect how children learn, or what they have access to learn. It’s here, it’s there. The language and culture of origin may be distant or right here in our own backyard.  Extremism is just another form of idolatry, so this should not be a surprise. You can tell it is idolatry, firstly because it is created by humans (though often supposedly in the name of God), secondly because of the unforgiving (when is God not forgiving) nature of its demands, and finally how you are required to love it but it does not love you back.

However, all that aside, I think Ezekiel is addressing something more fundamental here.  Elsewhere in scripture, the children of Israel are always the people, the common citizens of the country.  These people are being sacrificed in Ezekiel’s eyes to avarice of the rulers of Jerusalem.  We saw this earlier in the book of Ezekiel.  But, ….sacrificed??

Back to my earlier example about hard working people being sacrificed for the “good” of the company.  (And by the way, that’s not the only time I saw that kind of business stupidity being delivered from so called managers.)  It is common for management/leadership/ruling class to look upon the rest of humanity as disposable to the needs of the moment. The passages of these interim verses of Ezekiel mention the involvement of the rulers of Jerusalem with other surrounding nations.  High places were built to satisfy the whims of these other nations.  That kind of thing demands resources – the kind of resources that can be extracted from a population of people who are vulnerable or in debt.  Yes, they probably were sacrificed in order to secure a certain amount of status with the national peers of Israel.  And,  as I mentioned before, it is always the children who suffer the most. Given the circumstances, I have no doubt that families were torn apart, or forced to work for extended periods of time in order to bring these perilous acts to a conclusion. And none of it was hidden from God – as Ezekiel goes into extreme detail.

All of this for what?   Ezekiel compares Israel to a prostitute. However, there is a big distinction made.  An actual prostitute expects payment for services rendered. Israel was paying their so called customers for the honor of being a prostitute in Ezekiel’s eyes.  Quite backward, but neither situation being desirable in any form.

What is the message here then?   The question to ask is why was the leadership of Israel so insecure that they believed they must pacify their peers, live up to imagined expectations of the very nations that they were in a position to influence in a positive way?  It was a total desire to be popular, to be secure, to know and control the dynamics.  None of that can be described as faith.   Faith does not demand that the nations leadership be passive and uninterested players either. But it does demand that they listen to the voice of compassion, of justice for their citizens, that they hear the cry for fairness and have an openness to the guidance of the Spirit which often advices to Be Still, have patience, watch God at work, and err on the side of being mindfully charitable of and to your neighbor.

It is often said that the old testament is about an Angry and Vengeful God – one who is quick of temper and who offers no mercy of compassion.  Over and over again, as I read Ezekiel, I see quite the opposite.  Here, in these paragraphs, we see God patiently working with Israel and the other nations over generations, trying to move them into a better state; until a breaking point is reached and all forward progress has been lost.   I see parallels between the parables of the Gospels and the pleas for social justice from the prophets.

Oh well, next blog will be on to the pronouncements of judgment in chapter 16.  I’m sure that will be filled with all kinds of fun.  And we will see if there is any hint of charity, mercy, or compassion left to be had.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ezekiel blog: A long story begins

Ezekiel chapter 16 is one of the longer chapters, and if I do say so, a bit creepy in some respects (at least one commentary agrees with that).  We are taken away through Ezekiel’s visionary experience into a long metaphor of the history of Israel.

Ezekiel paints a picture of a truly undesirable beginning.  It’s a common story even today eg. wrong parents, undesirable lineage, bad neighborhood, no economic standing, bad hygiene, living in rags and poverty. No one would want her, Israel that is.  We are told that God took enormous care and patience, long suffering to watch over Israel as she grew.  All the growing pains, correcting measure by measure.  This is a process that took centuries of history.

If we look at this today, it flies in the face of the modern accusation that the God of the Old Testament was a God of wrath and quick vengeance.  Absolutely not true.  Here we have a patient and nurturing God who forgives blatant imperfection. He see’s the potential of what could be. God planted the seeds of richness and watched them grow.

There is a line in this chapter that I really love – though it sounds so much better in the poetic text of the KJV. It says,

Then washed I thee with water;
yea, I thoroughly washed away thy blood from thee,
and I anointed thee with oil.

It is a promise to each one of us, spoken clearly into the middle of the mess we find ourselves living every single day.

What’s more, we see in this chapter that the neighboring nations are directly referenced, and this is for a reason.  Ezekiel tells of God’s excitement about presenting his precious jewel of Israel to all the other nations. Why?  Why is that?

I think it tells of us the intention to bring hope and improvement to the other nations – who are also of God’s creation – by showing Israel as an example.   It’s almost as if He’s saying, “Look! Look at what I was able to do with the poorest of the poor, the weakest of the weak.  I can also bring you closer to perfection if you come to my presence and forsake your pride and evil ways.  Here is the example. Here is what is waiting for you”

Isn’t that what Jesus said in one of his sermons too, when He said “No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light.”  I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, that there is such a huge connection between the Gospels  and the Old Testament prophets.

It is the same message, but you have look closely.

From  a personal perspective, does that mean you or I are supposed to hold ourselves out as examples?  I submit to you that the answer is No.  How do you know when you are perfect in God’s view?  No, it was for God to decide the moment and time, and present His work to the nations. Similarly, it is for God to decide when to use you for an example

All we can do is present ourselves to our neighbors and community as imperfect creatures – a work in progress.  And share that message that if God is willing to invest time and materials in me, then He surely is willing to do the same for you.

I find a certain amount of peace in this message – and this is the good news of the Gospel.

Next blog will traverse further into Ezekiel chapter 16 to see what happens next. What does Israel do, and how does the vision progress?

 

 

Ezekiel blog: Time to take a breather – it’s just me

Hi to anyone who’s been following this blog. I’ve been traipsing my way through Ezekiel (as in the Book of -) and blogging sort of a mental travel guide as I go. I’ve read the book several times, but it was always with predisposed imagery that had been supplied to me externally.  Nothing like being prejudiced about a work of art, or a piece of music, a subculture, a demographic group, or in this case, a scripture without having seen/experiencing it first hand.

After reading through this book several times though, something seemed to click in my head. I realized there were bigger themes and messages at work here.  More importantly, I became aware that the message was just as contemporary today as it was in the days of Ezekiel.  And I mean contemporary in the sense that it matters today – the message matters, it still matters, it has always mattered.

I was blown away one day, when I read somewhere that Ezekiel was considered a “Closed” book in Christian circles. Really?  How can that be? There is a message there. Several in fact.

I was just sitting out on my back porch thinking about the next chapter and pondering why I seem to be drawn to this writing.  It turns out that in some ways, it’s no different from any other book: I find things in Ezekiel that I relate to or identify with. Sometimes it’s Ezekiel himself as anal-retentive and detail obsessed as he is, he had his whole world turned upside down.  And he turned to his faith to try to make sense of it all and in the process had a whole new concept opened up.  On some levels, I can very much relate – I’ve had my world turned upside down several times. I have had to jump between cultures again and again and translate back and forth between them.  I used to think that it simply pleased the Lord to strip away everything from me so that I could start again from scratch…over and over.

Sometimes I relate to the city of Jerusalem described in the context of the book.  I look at the judgments brought against that city, the portents and the woes; they are all agents of change.  I find that I cling to the disastrous changes that befall me sometimes – revel in the confusion for there is often opportunity in chaos, or what appears to be chaos.  So part of me has come to accept these things that are hard.  I didn’t say I sail through them, or sit peacefully with my chai latte and placidly repeating “God has a plan”.  No, sometimes I’m screaming at the sky, dragging my feet, demanding answers, and being downright unruly.  But in the end I do admit that sometimes I don’t get the work that God is doing, but that His way is Just.  And I plow on. Must be the aries in me.

And so I come back to Ezekiel who against everything he knows so well, brings a message that is utterly confusing to his peers.  He sees the pride and joy of his nation dragged down from its heights. He looks at his fellow refugees and is not able to offer much comfort and certainly no short term easy answers. No platitudes to be found at the corner coffee shop of ancient Babylon.

I find no easy answers as I explore my faith either. I am mystified by those who race through their favorite social media with quick answers and formulas guaranteed to solve everything.  Faith isn’t magic. Faith isn’t a formula. Faith is tough. Faith is hard hard work. Faith gets you dirty. Faith takes you to places that are uncomfortable.  I relate to that. That makes sense to me.

so all we really get from Ezekiel so far are just these four words: God. Is. With. Us.
So much mystery. So much work. So much unknown. Ughh.

Ezekiel blog: and now for a bit of gardening

Taking a look at Ezekiel Chapter 15 – a very short chapter with lots going on.
I wonder what y’all will think of this entry.  Have fun.

Have you ever tried to get rid of a patch of poison ivy vines growing up and around a cluster of trees?   Not fun I can tell you.  You can use various poisons, of course, but their always seems to be another outbreak if you don’t get enough poison to reach all the way down to the roots.  For that matter, even if you get the roots, poison ivy is able to seed new vine off-shoots if it puts new roots down along its path. You have only been successful eradicating the poison ivy infestation if you are able to kill it at both root and end of the vine.

Nice, you say. What’s this have to do with Ezekiel chapter 15,  you say. In Chapter 15, we are given what seems to be a whimsical parable at almost random.  It’s not the usual vision, nor is it a response to the “Elders” of Israel. It’s almost as if Ezekiel was wondering aloud why all of these extreme measures were necessary. Can you blame him?  The answer, of course, is given within the text.  It is the faith, or in this case, the un-faithfulness, infesting Jerusalem that God is objecting to.  And part of the problem was the idea that took hold among the people that they could outlast the judgment and displeasure of God, so much so, that they ignored and imprisoned Jeremiah the prophet.  They were dead set on resisting the guidance to submit to Babylon, regardless of what they were being advised.

Many of the commentaries fall back to looking for analogues between the images of the prophetic oracle, and what we know of the physical world in history, The method in this case is to liken the vines of Chapter 15 to the royal realms of Judah and Israel, etc.

But as I mentioned above, the focus of the chapter is on Faith, something that is hard to quantify or measure in terms of man. From this perspective, I feel that the chapter is more directly describing the society and religious hypocrisy of the day.

Getting back to the vine metaphor then, you have to ask, where does a vine get its support – draw nutritrients?  How and where does it spread? The ills that afflicted Jerusalem, indeed, did not exist in a vacuum any more than corruption (political or otherwise) exist today without networks of support.  Something has to feed it.  We saw in earlier chapters how there was collusion between those of authority – and assumed authority – that enabled a few select to deceive the tender, the vulnerable, the weak, and those who cling to their faith.

So when God tells Ezekiel that he has burned the vine at both ends, God is saying that it was necessary to purge out the root of the vine, that from which it gets its support and strength, and at the same time he has prevented it from spreading further.  Spreading where? To the neighboring nations possibly, to all of the local synagogues through out the twelve tribes possibly, or perhaps to future generations (my favorite). In any case, the spreading had to stop. So the vine was burned at both ends.

And in answer to Ezekiel’s astonishment that what had always been treasured was gone forever, God declares that the vine really has no intrinsic worth in and of itself. It simply wasn’t worth preserving.  The only value that the vine had was its ability to bear good fruit. But Jerusalem had ceased to be a light on the hill, had ceased to be a court of justice, and the temple had ceased to be a place dedicated to prayer and humble offering before the Lord.  There was no more fruit to be had.  And other than that, having a vine laying around is simply more trouble than it is worth. You can’t make anything out of it – only burn it.

This answer to Ezekiel is powerful, even today. For me, it speaks to questions about how we conduct ourselves in today’s world, what we enable, and what we tolerate from those who feel entitled to suppress or deceive others.  This passage, in my opinion, links religious hypocrisy with injustice – social injustice, religious injustice, racial injustice, etc.

Ezekiel’s visions cry out to us as human beings together in a world of fear and pain.  Ezekiel stood against accepted norms that were unjust. And here in the 15th chapter of Ezekiel he speaks of the inevitable end that will come to the vines that grow within our culture that produce no good fruit, but only exist for their own existence. Having no intrinsic worth it is only good for the fire.

For those who consider the Books of the Prophets as having nothing to do with the Gospels which tell of the Christ, consider this:  Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches”.  He did not say Jerusalem was the vine, nor the Temple, nor Israel.  He is the vine that produces good fruit.  And what was that fruit?  It was mercy to the poor, the outcast, those who found themselves marginalized by society. He forgave, He prayed, He healed, He cared, He called others to do the same.

 

 

 

Ezekiel blog: the small matter of four horseman of the Apocalypse…

Before we dive into a section that gets really gloomy, please go back and ready the blog entry before this on the first half of Ezekiel chapter 14. It’s all about hope.

The second half of Ezekiel chapter 14 takes a sudden turn into more ominous territory.  Anyone who has even heard of the Book of Revelations knows about a certain reference to the Dark Horseman.  This image has become so iconic as to almost become archetypal in western thought. In fact, most of us including myself, are too horrified at the thought of these matters that we just avoid sections of scripture like this.

But reading through what Ezekiel has written here sends my thoughts along two different tracks at the same time.  The first is the consistent use of a very important word: “IF”.   The second track is the huge similarity to of imagery to what John wrote in the Book of Revelations – commonly referred to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  The same four dreadful judgments are introduced here in Ezekiel almost a thousand years before Revelations was written. But what does it mean?  And more importantly, what does it mean to you and me trying to figure things out in our lives?

I’m pretty sure I do not possess all the answers, but there are some things that come across.  These judgments come in a certain order for Israel. 1) Hunger and Famine 2) Wild beasts wandering through 3) the sword  4) disease and pestilence otherwise known as plague.  I don’t think this is accidental.  Many commentators think that the wild beasts represent the invading armies wandering unhindered through Israel, going about defiling everything.  This is nothing to God since everything is defiled already by what the people of Jerusalem were already doing. If this is true, then the Hunger and Famine are due to siege conditions with food supplies being “cut off” as is mentioned in verse 13.   The sword falls on those who resist the free movement of the invading “Beasts” in much the same way that any invading army usually makes examples out of the presumed “ring leaders” in every village.  This leaves those who are vulnerable whether by age, or affliction, or injury, or poverty.  These are the ones who have no means to do much more than survive, often having no choice but to exist in the shackles of starvation and poor health conditions.  We see this even today – just by turning on the news.

These are “dreadful judgments” indeed, to use the expression from the verse. But always the work of the prophet is to point out the truth of a situation, and at the same time speak to the spiritual life of a people too.  And we see this by Ezekiel’s reference to Daniel, Job, and Noah; one prophet who led the faithful to life beyond utter destruction, one iconic person of history who endured much tribulation in the name of faith, and one prophet who was with the people right now in captivity.

So when I look at these four judgments, I have to ask myself if I have given my heart to something that leads away from true faith that I now find myself feeling surrounded, walled in, under siege where my spiritual food is cut off and I feel hungered.  Am I letting fads, fashions, pop-culture pear pressure run through my existence like wild beasts.  Do my principles and ethics fall to the sword of the weekly paycheck.  Is my family life withering under the plague of obliterated communication and impatience.  What are we doing to ourselves? Where is our humanity?  Where is our patience and sense of mercy?  Has fairness been permanently evicted from our souls?

Wait.  Wait a minute.  What if there was still room in our perspectives for a sense of community?  What if we heard and responded to a call for justice?   There is that key word I mentioned earlier?     **** IF ****   if, if, if, if

God says that at the beginning of each of the examples of judgment eg. IF I decide to do this, you can not avoid this, etc.   If. Which tells me there is reluctance to take that step if at all possible to avoid.  It now feels like God is begging please, please don’t take things this far. Please don’t make it necessary for me to decide that there is no other alternative way to deal with you.

And that, once again, highlights that we have choice. We have agency. “Choose this day to serve the Lord” is how the scripture goes.  It means choose today, choose tomorrow, think about it again and again and each time choose the path of the disciple.  Choose the path of faith, which is a path of bravery and exploration of things God has yet to share.  Ezekiel had to be brave to meet God out in the middle of the desert – out in open country – to receive the concept that Faith travels, that God is continually with his people. He had to face whole new concepts, pass through boundaries previously imposed by society and religious tradition. It was hard, it was uncomfortable.

Finally, at the end of the chapter, we are directed to observe the children.  God tells Israel in captivity to watch the children and see why the judgments have fallen as they have. We do need to think of our children, of the next generation. We need to pass on the value of Charity, Mercy, Justice, Compassion and inclusive community. Are we doing a very good job?   I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Thanks for checking in on this blog – my travelogue through Ezekiel.

 

Ezekiel blog: there’s yet hope…

Ah, at last we find a brief oasis from the dire verbiage of Ezekiel thus far.  Here in Ezekiel chapter 14 (the first half) things finally come back to home….so to speak.  At least, Ezekiel has concluded his visions about Jerusalem and is now sitting in his house in an interview with the local Elders of Israel in their shared captivity in Babylon.  What, pray tell, could be on their minds?

Imagine you are captive in a foreign land, and you keep hearing from this new prophet with exotic visions that the destruction of your homeland, and everything you are familiar with is a done deal.  Two options come to mind.  1) Fine!  just plug in to the local religions/cults and get back to normal, or 2) Totally freak-out and feel lost with no connection to what you believe is true.  What do you do?

Ezekiel receives a vision from God answering these very human states and it is here that we become familiar with some interesting expressions:  “Idols of the heart” and “Stumbling blocks before their face”.   Rather interesting.

Idols are static representations of human projections of affectionate fervor.  We have these around today, no need to look very far.  We even make fun of it with expressions such as “Teen idol”, or “I have a relationship with my phone”, or “my car is my baby”.  These things are not God and do not have the capacity to LOVE YOU BACK.

The elders of Israel in captivity turn out to be just as human as you and I find ourselves, beset by the same doubts and longings for better times. They fall prey to the same things that make us stumble.  And here is the Spark of Hope I mentioned in the title.

God say to Ezekiel, “I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel,…”   Hearts is the word used here.  Not mindless obedience and not fearful subservience. God, the creator of us all, it would seem, wants His people to respond to Him out of genuine affection and love for the principles He has brought out through the course of these visions.  Fraudulent religious posturing, hypocritical lip service, lack of charity, absence of mercy, no social justice; these are all symptoms of what God did not want and still does not want.

What a mission statement then, for our creator on high:   To recapture their hearts away from the idols they worship.   And to this, Ezekiel is told to proclaim a message that is much like an open door to a people who have been chased away from everything that was most familiar.  It is a simple message, and one that has been echoed by every prophet. It is the olive branch offered to a headstrong people, it is the ray of hope that all is not lost entirely – that there is still yet a way back held open for the willing.

“Repent!  Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices……”

What are idols again?  Things not of God, but made of Man, things that do not LOVE YOU BACK. Things that demand and require all of your energy, but only give you the appearance of a soulful relationship with your creator. Sadly, idols can appear both outside of religious structure and worse, inside the very walls of churches as we see them today. Idolatry happened back in Chapter 8 in the very temple of God,…what would make us so very different today in our high-tech multi-media church buildings made of drywall and fine art?

So ask yourself, in what you do everyday, to the things you pour all of your love and energy into, whether it is church related or not,  does it heal your soul? does is LOVE YOU BACK? Does it engage your heart with Charity, Mercy, and Social Justice?  or…does it require fearful adherance, subserviance, and mindless obediance? It’s hard to admit these things and it’s even harder to let go. I’ve had to face my own idols and come to the conclusion that a great many of them come from my own integration of the expectation of other people’s desires into some core religious and philosophical ideas.  I know this sounds vague, but it true for me.  All I can say is that idols come in all forms, figures, places, times and appearances.  but the true temple of God, ….your heart and my heart….must be swept clean of all of them.  And about those people who can do that,  God tells Ezekiel,  “They will be my people, and I will be their God….”

Keep trying, Keep trying.  This chapter, the first half of Ezekiel ch 14 vs 1-11 is a voice of counsel that it is never too late, especially to those who’ve had their lives completely turned upside down, and where nothing seems to make sense, and where everything that was familiar is now gone.  There is one who stays with us, way out here in open country.

 

Not to forget the ladies

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  Now hold on here.  So far, Ezekiel has been talking about specific people, more specifically the MEN in charge of all things religions and governmental.  That’s 13 and a half chapters of all kinds of wrong-doing, etc.  The wrongs are addressed and the folks responsible are,…well held responsible.  But there is a certain focus to it all.  These groups, this situation, etc.   But there is no all-out blanket of judgment against men as a gender. Culturally, there seems to be an un-spoken “boys will be boys” when it comes to bringing on the entire downfall of your respective city-state / country / village. In other words, “men, you were bad, you got punished, lets try again.” To be clear, I’m speaking about cultural bias here, not accusing God of lackadaisical justice.  Again to be clear, in all instances, it is our own limitations that prevent us from understanding the fullness of what God is about.

That said, what about the women folk?

I’m thinking back through passages of history that stand in contrast.  Early Renaissance period and the Witch hunts through out Europe.  The establishment of the principle that women must be kept under lock and key because universally there is trouble to be had if they can just do what they want.  The outright ban on educating women for several centuries, and not to be left out, the Salem Witch Trials.   All of these, and many more, instances of fanatic adherence to supposed religious principles are all directed uniformly at a gender, rather than the specific persons as we see in Ezekiel’s oracles.  So it begs the question, what does Ezekiel have to say on the subject of women who trespass the law?

To be honest, biblical scripture has been used to justify the actions I just described.  Some of that scripture comes from this very chapter of Ezekiel.  But is that really what Ezekiel was intending with his prophecy?

Well, if we are irrationally predisposed to accept that all women have the potential to mysteriously become soul-trapping dark magic dealers,  it might seem reasonable to turn to Chapter 13: 17-23.  Suddenly we have grounds to fly off the handle, convene pop-up courts throughout the dark ages and start sentencing women to death for witchcraft.  That’s one half of one chapter of text,…..seven verses folks.   There are websites out there right now on the internet that cite this exact portion of this chapter as part of the combined Biblical condemnation of women as religious leaders. Additionally, the implication, historically, is that women are some how more susceptible to the enticements of witchery and must constantly be on guard against their own dark nature, etc. etc.

The problem is that readers from other centuries tended to skip through much of this chapter and just string together little bits of the text into a preconceived picture than can be applied as a stereotype.  For instance, it is a section that is specifically addressed to women – whoa that’s different.  Later on in the chapter it mentions veils of different lengths.  This then tied together with the phrase, “…ensnare souls”.  Finish it off with mention of “magic charms” and voila, you have an instant indictment against any female person who doesn’t quite fit in. These charges are so vague that they can be applied to almost anyone who is not in the popular crowd, or who is inconvenient in their opinions.  Yes indeed, these are serious witchcraft like charges, etc. etc.  However…..

To be blunt, that is not what Ezekiel Chapter 13: 17-23 is about at all.  Not even close.

This section starts with a very clear sentence which exactly states the Lord’s objection to the behavior of certain women of the community.  So right away, we see that Ezekiel is addressing a specific situation, just like he had to do with the male leaders of the community. These women that Ezekiel is addressing are the one’s who prophesy out of their “own imagination”.  They are making stuff up.    They do this in order to make themselves look good, to gain prestige, or to meddle with someone else’s emotional/spiritual crisis.

In modern times, when people do that, it is usually for some kind of profit. I am guessing that people were pretty much the same back then as well.  Ezekiel calls this out too.  He criticizes the women who lie to the people all for the payment of bowls of barley or other grain.  Think about that.  Their clientele is so poor, that they have to pay for services with the food off of their own table.  What kind of a holy person would demand some give up food, meals that are probably intended for children of the house.

And by what methods do these particular women use to distinguish themselves?  How do they make themselves stand out from the poor and lower classes?

They use head drapes like the men who are actual officials.  The thinking is: See – I’m like them, so you should listen to me.
They use Magic charms:  mysterious talismans whose purpose is to confuse the onlooker into thinking you know more than you really do.  The trap here is that the victim has to rely on your interpretation – which gives you control.

In effect, talismans (charms, tokens, et al) are all miniature forms of idols.  Does this mean that every charm bracelet sold in your local mall is some kind of perverse religion?  Not really.  It is only in the faith you give to such man-made things, or the control you give to someone else which makes this a thing of folly.  And magic charms and talismans come in many, many more forms these days. Whatever gives you a false strength over someone else – that is the charm you tie to your wrist for all to see.

I was recently in a rather well known coffee shop for lunch with my wife.  Sitting in the booth adjacent to us was a pair of women.  It was of interested because they both had study bibles out and a pile of highlighters and study materials.  One of them was somewhat younger than the other.  The older of the two seemed to be in the role of an instructor.  It was a bit surreal though as the “instructor” had the stereotypical froo-froo hair, several layers of makeup, Jewelry on both wrists, and a study guide facsimile that was clearly part of a larger program which she waved around and dramatically referred to.  I remember seeing the confused  expression on the younger woman’s face at what was being “explained” to her by the instructor who spoke in the again stereotypical southern accented bible-speak.  She was using all the sales techniques I’ve been trained in – and I could see the lost expression on the “student’s” face, I could imagine how disheartened she must be feeling.  I felt so sorry for her because this was, in part, what Ezekiel was talking about.  A minister’s job is not to confuse, overwhelm, and bully the timid inquirer. A minister isn’t supposed to be building himself or herself up. Quite the contrary.  Ask yourself if you can remember a single verse where Jesus sought to build up his public image with trinkets, taxation, or excessive presentation.

But getting back to Ezekiel 13, one could ask  why does this matter anyway?  Wasn’t it enough for Ezekiel to just condemn all the false prophets in the beginning of the chapter…’nough said?  Why the extra detail here?  The answer is found by asking the next question:  Who were these false female prophets affecting?  Ezekiel provides the answer:   Those who died but who were not supposed to die.   Additionally, these specific women lied and disheartened those who were seeking the truth,  and with their lies THEY ENABLED those who brought disaster upon Jerusalem.

And for that, they did earn a special place in the wrath being set loose upon Jerusalem.  But,…we do not, as a corollary, have a condemnation against all women, nor a judgment that they cannot participate in faith.

People, the message here is that true Prophecy is about Truth.

 

 

 

 

 

Ezekiel blog: How do you know?… -OK one of my longer ones..geez

Hi everyone, just moving on through some more of Ezekiel and blogging my way into some opencountry hopefully.  This time we’re at chapter 13.  See here courtesy of Biblegateway.com. This blog could just as easily been titled, “Now getting down to the heart of the matter”, but we’ll keep it as it is.

As you can see, by reading back through all the other entries, this has been one continuous narrative about the state of Jerusalem just before it was completely overrun by invaders from the East.  And at the crux of it all was a seeming willful disobedience to the direct and dire warnings of the prophet Jeremiah.  Ezekiel also delivered messages of warning directing the people to be faithful, to submit to a plan that did not seem to make sense at first pass, to be obedient to the will of God.

Yes, the visions detail all the wrong doings of the religious leaders in power at the time, their excesses as such. The narrative also describes the failings of the civic leaders and also the fall of the ruling family.  But there is one class of people that is reserved for last, the key to the whole problem:  Those that preached directly against the word of God’s anointed and appointed messengers.

These are the people who deliberately lead astray the confused, the under-privileged, who publically endorse the over-privileged and self-entitled.  These are the people who scheme to remove real agency which leads to faith by ensnaring the souls of the downtrodden with words meant to keep them in one place and under control through fear.  I’m not talking about Fear in the Biblical sense, a term which means faithful respect and awe.  I’m talking about fear of being socially ostracized, of being publically disgraced, a fear of having what little you have remaining taken away.

This behavior brings the most specific condemnation from God through the writings of Ezekiel.  The judgment is that they will not belong to the council of God’s people – an interesting statement. Further, they will not be listed in the book or records of Israel. Again interesting. But can you imagine anything worse than to be “written off” from the mercy of the Lord….literally? They are to be erased from all record.  I mean, at least the conquering enemy gets named by name.

It seems that God is against those who speak with “lying visions”.  What are those?  Ezekiel goes to some length to explain what is at the core of this accusation.   Ezekiel 13: 10 states, ““‘Because they lead my people astray, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, …”  Did you catch that?  Here is where the term “whitewashing” comes from.  These individuals told the people that there was no danger, to ignore guys like Jeremiah, that there was no reason to re-examine faith and then they covered up any holes in their arguments with window dressing to confuse those who were trying to seek truth.

But this begs a very important question that is central to a spiritual reflection on the words of the prophets:  “How do you know?”  How do you know who is a prophet and who is a whitewash expert? Hmmm?

Ezekiel begins to give us clues back in chapter 12.  At the end of that chapter he mentions sayings among the people that boil down to;  “We hear prophecies all the time, but nothing ever happens.”  etc. etc.  God states that He is going to put an end to that kind of talk, in short, action will ensue.

The object here is the key quality of patience – something that goes hand in hand with faith. I’ll be the first to admit that this one is tough, something I struggle with myself all the time.  Why patience? Because it is a Godly quality, in other words Patience is a definable quality that God displays constantly – fortunately for us.  It is, therefore, a quality that we must be bold enough to try to emulate, knowing that it might take a lifetime of practice to get it right.  Patience is the road that faith travels on.  But it is HARD, from a human perspective, it is a hard thing to do as a response to faith.

So the false prophet is one who offers people quick fixes, easy outs, or over simplified absolutes; all with the price tag of personal brand loyalty.  You know what I’m talking about here.

But what else can we learn from Ezekiel on this topic? With his attention to detail, he must have been devastatingly aware of how he would be perceived since his message was so radically different from standard teachings.  Going back to the patience theme, remember the entire year that Ezekiel spent on the first initial signs to Israel bearing the sins of his people.

But additionally, there is a significant delineation Ezekiel draws between these false prophets and the real deal.  Back at the beginning of Chapter 13, in verse 4, we read an interesting accusation: “Your prophets, Israel, are like jackals among ruins. You have not gone up to the breaches in the wall to repair it for the people of Israel…”  Jackals,…Jackals?!?  Oh, scavengers who prey on the weak and sickly or knaw on the bones of the fallen.  These are the kind of people who are really interested in their own agenda and not the concern of the people. This is borne out in the rest of this accusation eg.   not focusing attention on the actual holes in the wall, and not trying to repair those holes for the people.

What holes and what walls we should be asking.  Ezekiel is pointing out that these self appointed prophets, besides having no credentials or vision from the Lord, have not tried to heal the wounds of the community.  Not only do the other prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel speak of judgments, but they also point the way back to how the community should be in communion with God. Even Moses came down from his visionary experience with 10 (some say 14) commandments, clear steps on how to treat each other so that the community as a whole is uplifted and prepared to offer sacrifice, faith, and service to God.

We look to Ezekiels own writings and see his grief over the realization of the state of Israel; his identification of what is wrong at so many levels within the society at large. And we see him pointing out how this only leads to the ruin of the people who don’t know what to believe. He cries to the establishment,  stop the injustice upon your own people, stop the hypocrisy and indulgence to you own self-gratification without regard to the overwhelming needs of your people.  Ezekiel points to the other nations, neighbors of the region, and asks why aren’t we worse than they are from an ethical point of view? Where is the justice, where is the compassion, where is the charity???!!!  the list goes on.

If you have cable, HDTV, satellite TV etc. it isn’t to hard to find today’s self proclaimed prophets singing their wares on the airwaves(?)/cablewaves(?).  There is always some voice shouting out “you’ll be fine,…as long as you follow these rules by rote,…and donate to my cause” – that’s the easyout approach mentioned earlier. There’s always voices screaming hate and vilifying one subgroup of society or another – that’s the lack of charity, justice and compassion message just discussed,  and there is always a voice to be found that trumpets “Me and Mine, me first”, which Ezekiel clearly called out as not the voice of prophecy, or even basic ministry for that matter.

If Ezekiel were here today, he would be asking these voices:
1. Instead of shouting down at the community, why don’t you “Go to” the places where the wall is crumbling? Participate in the community where the breaches exist.

2. How are you going to mend those places of crumbling and cracking in the souls of the community?  Are you going to help find a path towards healing?  Or are you content to sit in your place of safety and comfort and look down on those less fortunate and claim that they have no faith.

3. Are you able to even discern where the holes in the wall of society exist? Where are the flaws which need to be exposed so they can be repaired.  The true ailment is more often than not a subtle thing.  You can’t froth at the mouth and scream to the heavens at what is most likely only a symptom and hope to bring true healing.

A true prophet reveals the presence of the God already in attendance, but hidden from the eyes of the unknowing. A true prophet leans on the healing flow of the Spirit to point out painful truths and yet offer the extended offer of forgiveness from God.  A true prophet calls Gods people to faith, true faith, not rote.

God called Ezekiel out onto the desert plain. Ezekiel called his people away from the crumbling walls of Jerusalem and out into open country confident that the Lord would be there to meet them and comfort them.

Next chapter begins to tell us how….
Sorry for being so long winded.