The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die…
“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?
“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.” (Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25–32)
It was one particular piece of homework which caused me to turn my back on geography. Rather than pursuing a glittering future as a geographer, perhaps exploring unchartered wastes, I turned my back on the whole subject. Apart from its tediousness, it was simply the injustice of it all. Why would I want to spend a two-year sentence studying O-Level geography if it meant having to endure assignments of such unfair tyranny.
Judge for yourselves. At the end of the lesson the geography teacher (his name has been removed from the halls of my memory) causally let us know what our homework would be: we had to draw a map of our journey to school. I mean, really! How could a man that we were told we had to respect as a teacher and leader of men show such a rank disregard for all the laws of justice which makes a society civilised?
Here’s the thing. This was a boarding school, and I wasn’t a boarder. Whilst those smugly smiling lads in the back row thought about the two hundred yard walk to school, I had in my mind the horror of having to draw out the seemingly endless miles from my house to school. I’ve just checked: it’s 8.4 miles. How could that be fair? I boldly, pointed this out to the teacher but he - the wretch - couldn’t see the problem. And that was it. At that moment I turned my back on geography, and stopped caring about the marks I got. It didn’t matter any more, as I would cast the subject aside as soon as I could.
To this day I can’t name all the capitals of Europe, and I simply don’t care! Take that Mr I-Can’t-Remember-Your-Name!
Justice. The concept lies deep within out souls, and nothing smoulders as long as a sense of injustice. All we want is to be dealt with fairly. We want to be judged on our own actions, not according to some blanket policy. We want the rules to be clear, to know what is required of us. We want the same standards to be applied to everyone, and to applied fairly. Not on a whim.
Justice. It’s a central plank in how the world should work. And so to the Prophet Ezekiel.
In this passage we see a very clear statement of what God requires from us. He won’t judge us according to the actions of our parents: “behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die” We are all to be held to account for our own actions and our own actions alone. That is just: your future is in your own hands, and those hands alone.
Moreover, he has very plainly set out the principles by which he will judge us: righteousness v wickedness. If we pursue lives which are in accordance with the laws of God, then all is well. If we decide to break those laws, and walk in paths of wickedness, then we will be judged accordingly. There is no obscurity to this, it is all plain.
Justice, yes, but also mercy. It can be all to easy to fall into the mistake of seeing God as some sort of unsmiling Victorian father. One dressed in black, and all sternness and severity. No second chances. Yet as we read at the end of this passage from Ezekiel “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live”. Along with this straightforward statement of what is required comes a call to “repent and turn”. A statement of hope, a hand outstretched.
We should never imagine our situation to be hopeless, to be beyond repair. In times of old you would read of a thief who, knowing that the gallows were already in view, saw no point in stopping thieving. Not so with God. His cry goes out: “why will you die”? The appeal is issued: “turn and live”. We are never beyond his pale, or beyond his reach. As the old preachers would have it, God saves from the “uttermost to the guttermost”.
But, you might ask, what about the things I’ve already done. Those things of which I am ashamed, those times I have disobeyed the ways of God? No matter: “turn and live”. The glory of the cross is that on that instrument of death Christ bore the penalty for those sins, and so they are now cancelled. Listen to the Apostle Paul: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses … God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14).
God is neither unjust nor unmerciful. We are fairly judged according to our deeds, and against the standards he has clearly set out in the scriptures. Yet we always, always have the chance to “turn and live”. God desires the death of no-one, but rather to be reconciled.
So turn. And live.