A natural question people ask is 'Who is to blame?'. We see it in society and on the news when anything has gone wrong - people want to hold someone responsible. In Ezekiel's vision he is reminded of a proverb that was in wide circulation at the time: "The parents eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge". The saying basically means that the parents do something and the children suffer for it. It raises the question "Should children suffer for their parent's sins?".
God talks to Ezekiel about this through three scenarios: A father, a son and a grandson. The father's behaviour is expressed in a poem (verses 5 - 9). He honours God, doesn't look to idols, keeps himself pure (it uses sexual behaviour to illustrate this), lives a just life with compassion and mercy. In others he is in the premier league of living righteously. Yet the son is violent, looks to idols, has affairs, oppresses people, lives unjustly ... all the opposite of his father.
Yet he himself has a son (a grandson to the first man) who again is faithful to God, shows sexual fidelity, doesn't oppress, is generous, has compassion and shows justice. In other words back in that premier league. The three men thus show a spectrum of behaviour, with two at the opposite end to the other. What happens to the first man is obvious: he is righteous so he lives. For his son the vision uses sarcasm: 'will he live? No way!'. But for the grandson it is more interesting - should he suffer for his father's sins? God says to Ezekiel that he will not die, which is contrary to the proverb and what was probably generally accepted amongst people. Note though that the vision also makes clear: the child does not share the guilt of the parent, but also the parent the guilt of the child. It is a 2-way principle!
Yet the vision goes on. In v22 God says 'But if a wicked person turns away from their wrong to do what is just and right, they will surely live'. It goes on 'Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?'. God is pleased when people turn and live - this is the same as we had last week in the watchman passage (Ezekiel 33:11). In fact it is invitation to receive a new heart and a new spirit, which itself echoes a great promise of restoration in 11:19.
However we must read on! V24 says 'If a righteous person turns and is wicked their righteous acts will not be remembered, they will die for their unfaithfulness'. Yikes - this turning thing is also a 2-way principle, but perhaps one we didn't expect! It itself parallels the watchman passage, which in 33:12 onwards also says the same thing. This raises hard questions like "Can we lose our salvation?".
We can draw out some key principles. First that God has no grand-children! Each person comes before God on their own, it is not a case of their parentage or inheriting. That is why at Countess Free Church we bless and give thanks for babies, but we do not baptise them. Instead we practice believers baptism, when someone is able to make their own decision before God.
Second is that you do not inherit specific guilt from your parents. This is in contradiction to the popular (at the time) proverb, and the 'folk theology' it represented. But we should distinguish between individual guilt and corporate responsibility. As a people, the Israelites were all suffering exile etc. because as a people they had turned from God's ways. Yet this vision is making clear within that climate individuals can turn to God and be saved. Another note is that while we don't inherit specific guilt from our parents, we are all born into brokenness, finding ourselves in the wrong.
Third principle is that no one is stuck: we all have the opportunity to turn to God. It doesn't matter what the family history is or the blight of the past, we need not be stuck - we can turn and live.
Fourth and finally we can assert that judgement is not a balance account, with the sins weighing against the righteous acts, hoping the latter win out. Nor is it earning to out-credit the sins. We can assert this despite that 2-way principle of both sinner turning and righteous turning, and despite the language used of 'credited' or 'charged against' (e.g. in v20).
The final point can be made because the words from God to Ezekiel major on turning, and because we now understand the whole vision in the light of Jesus. Turning is about the inclination of your heart and life - it is not simply one slip-up or bad action. In Jesus we see that faith in Jesus leads to His forgiveness, being credited by God with righteousness (not earning it), and your life turning around. Note here the mistake people make of broadly thinking 'Old Testament = behaviour / religious works, New Testament = faith & grace in Jesus'. This is wrong!
Remember we said in the light of, not replaced by! The Old Testament passages do talk of behaviour, but the bigger context is always faithfulness. Recall the spectrum of behaviour for the men started with the point 'was their god idols or the Living God?', and the explanation about turning talks about becoming unfaithful (e.g. see v24). So the Old Testament is really looking to faith, not simply to works. Jesus, and the New Testament that resulted, then amplifies this point and makes it crystal clear. The promise in v31 (and 11:19) of a new heart and a new spirit are also directly in line with New Testament Pentecost spirit-filling theology!
The bottom line therefore is the invitation - which is an invitation to faith (in Jesus) which leads to forgiveness and life in Him, with the Spirit empowering so we can leave the old ways behind, completing the 'turn' that began by first looking to Him. The Ezekiel vision deliberately uses extremes to make the point - most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. The point is not have we made one slip-up, but are we learning to live faithfully?
The reality for all of us is that we have things in our life that the Spirit hasn't even highlighted or started to work on yet. For this reason the language we use of 'in' or 'out', 'saved' or 'not saved' etc. is understandable but it is not always helpful. I suggest it is better to look for 'Inbound' versus 'Outbound', i.e. what is the trajectory of the person's life, are they looking to enter the Kingdom of God?
We work with people with very messy lives. They say and do things that are highly dubious. Do we simply clobber them because of their behaviour? No! Rather we encourage them to re-embark on an inbound trajectory, hoping they will turn and leave the old behind. Does that mean we never challenge? No - sometimes we do challenge, but we find ways that affirm the person and inspires them to better and more life in Jesus. Such an approach is in fact a discipleship approach, which can start with someone way back before they have made a 'commitment' to Christ. It is about encouraging inbound to faith, entering the Kingdom of God.
So learn to look out for people who are showing signs of wanting to be inbound. Who is naturally engaging? The Ezekiel passage reminds us that all can turn, even a person who is lost, messed up, going the wrong way! Every person counts in the sight of God - so let us not judge by the baggage they bring, be it their own or the blight of family history or the past. Instead let us work to encourage people to look to Jesus, so that they can turn inbound themselves, they can receive Jesus, be empowered by the Spirit to turn ever more fully towards Him, and leave their old ways behind.