Ezekiel Blog: Being bad

Lynn Ragan’s continuing blog/exploration of Ezekiel – searching for some fresh clean air on this. This time out I’m coming back for a second pass through Ezekiel Chapter 18. But first, have you ever noticed how little time Jesus spends discussing SIN as quoted in the Gospels. In fact, Jesus doesn’t ever use the phrase “…thou shalt not…”, except during his fast in the desert eg. “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord…” which he quotes from the Pentateuch. He does speak critically, as quoted, about various social practices throughout Jerusalem that were common at the time. But all in all, his actions usually flew in the face of those who were schooled in the common thou-shalt-not approach to life.

I find this interesting since so many divisions of Christianity seem to spend most of their time focused on Sin. Sin and Law. Which brings me back to our guy Ezekiel who is sitting in the middle of the Persian desert trying to interpret a series of visions and oracles received from God during the exile of Israel. As I mentioned in my last blog entry on chapter 18, Ezekiel is taking time to address some general concepts of sin. It is very important to observe that he was approaching this from the standpoint of Personal Responsibility. That is key. But as I mentioned last time, there is another dimension to how Ezekiel wrote chapter 18.

Remember, Ezekiel is kind of unique when it comes to prophetic writers. He wasn’t just some guy out in the hills who shows up with some puzzling verses. He was specifically trained as a Priest of the temple. That gave him a very solid foundation in Mosaic law – the “thou shalt not” approach to life. He knew his history. And it is this story of Moses what gave me the idea for the framework of this read-through of the book of Ezekiel. It seems to me that Ezekiel relates most of what he is writing in some fashion back to Moses.

Like what? you might say. Well here in Chapter 18, Ezekiel is specifically tying in to what we call the Ten Commandments. In the Moses story, there is judgment, there are plagues, there is exile (freedom) from former oppressed homeland, there is covenant, and among other things, there is the giving of law…the Ten Commandments. So it is very revealing to see what bubbles to the top of Ezekiel’s list in terms of what is really really bad instead of merely an infraction of some sub-clause of this rule or that. To me what he is about to give lends to the authentic experience of being exiled and under strange circumstances.

???

When you travel, or when there is an emergency, or stressful circumstances, people tend to strip away all the excess and focus down on absolute essentials. Lets take a look – I’ll show you what I mean.

During the three specific examples of who is guilty of sin and how punishment will be assigned according to personal responsibility, Ezekiel presents us with a very specific list, a complete character profile, in a repeating line by line check-list. So I looked at that in comparison to the Ten Commandments (Everything about Ezekiel relates back to Moses – it was his way of making sense of what was going on at the time. ) If you look closely at his list you begin to see some interesting things. Here we go:

At the top of his list is the worshiping of other Gods, a very common theme throughout most of Ezekiel as the reason for their situation. This ties directly back to Commandment #1 eg. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me. This is followed up with Idols as in the worship of them. Commandment #2 speaks of Idolatry and graven images. If you recall, one of my earlier entry focused on human variations of idolatry and how this is directly called out during the visions of Ezekiel walking through the Temple.

So these two are paired under the category of covenant with God. The question to ask is what have I committed to God – what is my personal agreement?

Up next, Ezekiel skips ahead to commandment #7 -no adultery –  and refers to defiling your neighbor’s wife.  First of all, throughout all of Christian history, and the history of some other prominent religions, for situations of adultery, the woman is always blamed and punished more than the man.  From Ezekiel’s statement here we see that he is condemning the person who actively messes with someone who is in a committed and wedded relationship. That person is the adulterer.  It is harmful to the community, it is harmful to the family being targeted, it causes division to a people on the move who can not afford the wasted energy on internal disputes that can be far reaching as this. Covenant is challenged and therefore a sin.

Now matters turn to property, wealth, power and money.  Ezekiel starts with Commandment #8 by describing people who use blackmail to oppress, people who steel what is not theirs.  He has included elements of extortion, deceit, as well as outright theft in his concept of steeling.  All of these stem from the root of coveting something that someone else has. It’s not good for the community.

However, at this point, Ezekiel goes beyond the Ten Commandments and gets into some extended concepts.  I’m talking about leverage here. It’s not that lending (at interest) is particularly bad.  As long as all terms are clearly explained and are equally available, that seems to fall within Ezekiel’s boundaries of acceptable behavior.  What was not good, but considered sinful, was placing burdensome obligations on people – things that could never be worked off, debts that carried from one generation to the next.  In addition, it seemed common to add extra fees and costs – it was called usury then.  This was not good for the community and could cause people to be forced into desperate conditions where choices were limited. In short, because of a loan, a person could end up becoming enslaved, or beaten, or whipped in public disgrace, or forced to sell their children.  All of these practices were common even into the Renaissance era, even in Britain and France, who considered themselves the height of civilization.

If you read further into the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, you will also find condemnation against the Jews remaining in the destroyed Jerusalem for continuing to pursue loans at great interest against families returning from seventy years of captivity. Usury indeed. What is the sin?  Where is their charity, where is the sense of community?  Why were covenants broken by changing the terms of the debt.

Not to be left out, the list of things that a good person does in relation to money, loans, etc is the quality of “Judging Fairly” between parties.  I think this would have much to do in the loan collection aspect.  In Ezekiel’s view, it is incumbent upon the lender to have an attitude of leniency when it comes to unforeseen circumstances that affect payback of obligations.

Making the connection back to Jesus teachings, we find the same themes:  Concern for community, a focus on caring and compassionate neighbors, and a firm line against the money lenders in the temple who placed burdens on the people why they were in the very act of prayer.

These are the things that were at the top of Ezekiel’s list in terms of what the worst sins were that a person could be measured against.  So on the third time through the list of sins, we get these concise two verses Ezekiel 18:16-17

He does not oppress anyone
    or require a pledge for a loan.
He does not commit robbery
    but gives his food to the hungry
    and provides clothing for the naked.
17 He withholds his hand from mistreating the poor
    and takes no interest or profit from them.
He keeps my laws and follows my decrees.

I love that line, “He does not oppress anyone…”

Well now that we are down here towards the end of this entry, and perhaps some have dropped off the reading of this, there is just one other aspect of this that becomes apparent.  This list of behaviors that affect our state of grace does not seem to mention some other areas of life.  There is not one mention of what a person eats or drinks, no mention of daily scripture reading or not, no mention of weekly attendance at this synagogue or that.  There is no mention of lifestyles or socio-economic status indicators to stratify the population into the holy elite and the poor sinful rabble (the rest of us).

From my point of view, I see that contemplating my relationship with my creator in terms that I can understand and committing to sticking with that is my covenant. That approach should carry over into how I look at my neighbors – all my neighbors – where ever I might find them throughout life.

As for all the rest of the so-called rules that are wrung from the shreds of half verses of scriptures here and there, I’ll leave that up to the people who need a box to put God into, the people who seem to need to live in the thou-shalt-not framework, rather than the Blessed-are-those framework.

If I’m hanging close to the words of a prophet who has had over two years of continuous visionary experience at this point in the book of Ezekiel, and if much of that narrative aligns with the narrative of Moses, and if the overall moral of the story syncs up with much of what Jesus specifically addressed as quoted in the Gospels, then I can’t be that far into the rough, at least for the time being.

Blessings and thanks for hanging through this very long exploration of Chapter 18.