The word of the LORD came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.Ezekiel 18:1-4
Why did this happen to us? How did our country end up in such a mess? And who is to blame? Don’t worry, I am not going to delve into politics here. I am simply sharing the questions that people were asking 2,500 years ago, during the time of the prophet, Ezekiel. These questions may sound rather current and all-too familiar. But they are clearly not new questions.
Ezekiel shared God’s response to those questions in our first reading (Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32), and I think it is well worth exploring that response today. But why were they asking these questions then? Well, the Israelites had been conquered by a foreign power, forced from their homes and communities, and taken to live in exile in Babylon. And they couldn’t help but wonder why. Why did this happen? And who is to blame?
It is not the first time, or the last, that the question of who is to blame shows up in scripture. It seems that whenever a community or nation finds itself in a challenging situation, they are tempted to try and assign blame. The blame game actually goes back to the very beginning, though, doesn’t it? Remember Adam, blaming Eve for giving him the forbidden fruit? And Eve, blaming the serpent for tricking her? And ever since, the blame game has been a constant part of our lives.
The Blame Game
Turn on any news source these days, and you will probably find someone blaming someone else for some problem or another. And when you get tired of seeing this on the news, turn to a sports outlet, and you’ll find the same thing. Someone is blaming someone else for the problems with their team. The blame game has been going on for a very long time, and shows up everywhere.
Let me share one interesting example of this, in one of my favorite novels, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, first published in 2004. Here is a passage from this book that sounds eerily familiar:
People don’t talk much now about the Spanish influenza, but that was a terrible thing … People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit as far from each other as they could. There was talk that the Germans had caused it with some sort of secret weapon, and I think people wanted to believe that, because it saved them from reflecting on what other meaning it might have.
These are words written sixteen years ago about a virus that wreaked havoc 100 years ago. And it shows that the blame game was at work during that pandemic, too. Truly there is nothing new under the sun!
So, back to Ezekiel, who shared with us what God thinks about the blame game, with words written more than 2,500 years ago. “What do you mean,” Ezekiel starts out saying, “by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?” This is a well-known proverb at the time, that blames parents for the problems in their children’s lives. Our parents actions have caused the mess we are in. They ate sour grapes, and now it is our teeth that are set on edge. That is what the Israelites are thinking has caused the mess they are in. They are living in exile because their parents were living in sin, and God punished them for their sinful ways, and now they are having to live with the consequences.
It reminds me of a song that was a hit back in the 1980s: “The Living Years.” Remember that one? The chorus goes like this:
Every generation blames the one before, and all of their frustrations come beating on your door. I know that I am a prisoner to all my father held so dear, I know that I’m a hostage to all his hopes and fears. I just wish I could have told him in the living years.
Nothing new about this, right? And there’s some truth to it. We certainly are affected by our parents, and by those who have come before us. But when we use this as an excuse, as a way of ducking responsibility, then we are playing the blame game.
No One to Blame but Ourselves
So, what does God’s word have to say about this? Here again is the passage from Ezekiel:
The word of the LORD came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die …
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!
In this passage, God is clearly inviting us to look at the world and our lives in a different way. Not to blame our parents. Not to blame our political leaders. But to recognize that we, too, are to blame. And to focus on ourselves. You see? God wants to end the blame game.
This proverb about our parents shall no more be used, God says. No longer shall we blame others for what is happening in our lives. From now on, we shall focus on ourselves. This doesn’t mean that our parents or other leaders are blameless. Far from it. It just means that all too often, we blame them to avoid dealing with our own stuff. We do it to get out of the hard work of repenting, and changing the way that we live our lives. And that is what God is addressing in this passage.
God is inviting those who are living in exile, and blaming those who came before them, to repent, to turn from their own transgressions, and learn again how to be a faithful and obedient people. “Know that all lives are mine,” God says. “The life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.”
In other words, each of us is responsible for our own life. And each and every one of us is invited to work out our own salvation, with fear and trembling, as Paul puts it in our second reading. Because no one can do this for us. We must do this for ourselves.
The Good News
But that’s not the end of the story. Because something miraculous happened, five or six hundred years after Ezekiel taught us how to stop the blame game. God’s son was born. Not to condemn the world, but to save it. And this is when the blame game was really finished, once and for all. On the cross.
The cross is where God ends the blame game forever. Instead of blaming us for our sin, or for the brokenness in our world, God places all the blame on Jesus, who takes all that blame to the cross. Jesus doesn’t blame us for being crucified, even though he could. It was our sins that crucified him. But Jesus refuses to play the blame game. He doesn’t even blame the very people who crucified him. Instead he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And so, Jesus ends the blame game.
He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, as we heard in our second reading. No more blaming. No more judgment. No more condemnation. Only forgiveness. Only grace. Only mercy. Only salvation. And only love. Blame died on the cross. We don’t have to blame anyone anymore, not when it comes to our relationship with God.Not our parents. Not our politicians or other leaders. Not even ourselves.
That is the invitation and reminder in today’s reading from Ezekiel. Rather than blame anyone, we are invited to turn to God, and live. We are invited to get ourselves a new heart and a new spirit, as Ezekiel says. And God is ever eager to give us just that.
That is the good news. And that is why we are here today. To get away from all of the blaming, and the arguing, and all the obsessing over what is wrong with our world, and who we should blame. And to fix our eyes, instead, on what cannot be seen. To fix our eyes on the cross, and on God’s eternal love, and on God’s amazing grace for us all.
And when we do that, we can’t help but be filled with gratitude, even in the midst of our current challenges. And we can’t help but want to worship our loving God. And we can’t help but want to repent, and to change our ways, and to live our life in a new way. Not out of fear, but out of love.
Free from playing the blame game, we can now focus on seeking first the kingdom of God. With new hearts and a renewed spirit, we can reflect the light of Christ into our weary world. Reminded of the love that went to the cross to end the blame game forever, we can remind all the world of the love and grace and mercy of our amazing God. Who does not want to blame us, but only to forgive us, and to welcome us home. Thanks be to God. Amen