I love America, the land of my birth. There’s a lot to be said for it. But I’ve traveled enough around the world and know my Bible well enough to (hopefully) weigh its pros and cons and to compare how we do things here versus elsewhere.
One of the most important aspects of this country, what makes America virtually unique in history and in the world is based on its founding history. In America, we pride ourselves on being the nation of fresh starts. We don’t care who your great-granddad was. If he was a nobleman with a list of titles behind his name, we don’t really care. If he shoveled horse poop for a living, we don’t care about that either. We try to judge people based on their individual merit and character. Do we live up to that ideal all the time? Of course not, but at least it’s important to us.
In that regard—or at least the degree we practice it--we’re very different from every other culture in the history of the world. In other cultures of the world and in history, it mattered very much who your grandfather was. The group was much more important than the individual.
This could even extend to group punishment. In certain countries—even to this day—your family might be punished for the actions of one person. Or if one person acts wrongly, he/she brings shame on the rest of the family or tribe or clan, and that group will punish the individual wrongdoer in order to avoid shame and keep “face.”
The reason I bring all this up is to help you understand the Bible. Much of it won’t make sense to us if we don’t grasp the concept of group punishment for the sins of the individual. When Achan sinned in the days of Joshua, his whole family was killed.
But in today’s reading we have the proper balance. God is complaining about a certain proverb/cliché that had been making the rounds among the Israelites: “"The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge." The image was that of a parent eating sour grapes, and when his children are born, their teeth don’t come in properly.
Once again, we have to understand something: Depending on how you interpret it, there is some truth in the cliché. When you sin, it does affect others. In that sense, there’s no such thing as “private” sin. My sin affects my spouse, my extended family, my fellow employees, my church and ultimately my nation. Sin never just stays where it’s supposed to, in my private life where no one else knows.
But where the people in today’s passage went wrong is where they claimed that they were being specifically punished for the sins of their parents and ancestors. No, absolutely not. I cut the reading off for the sake of brevity, but the Lord goes into excruciating detail in this chapter and he wants to make one overriding point: You are responsible before God for your conduct, and he’ll treat you accordingly. He doesn't punish you for the sins of your children. If the father acts righteously but the child screws up, the child will be punished and the father blessed, and vice-versa.
Now here we need to be careful. We aren’t talking about eternal destiny here, where you spend eternity. If we were, then this passage would be teaching that you earn your salvation, which is completely contrary to what Paul teaches in the book of Romans and Galatians. The Bible doesn’t contradict itself, so we need to dig a little deeper. Ezekiel here is talking about earthly punishments and rewards. What you do in this life will affect your stay here. But if you want to know how to get into Heaven, that’s what the books of John and Romans are for.
So let’s not be distracted from the main point God is making thru his prophet here: The Lord holds you responsible for your actions, not for anyone else’s.
Let that soak in for a moment. When I sin against God and suffer for it, the only person to blame is me. If something bad is happening to me, I might not know why it happens, but I can be sure of one reason it didn’t happen: The Lord isn’t punishing me for someone else’s sin.
But don’t let the teaching in this chapter blind you to the corollary truth: My sin does affect others that I care about. Not that God punishes them for my sin, but it’ll affect them nonetheless. In a culture that focuses on the individual, I need to be reminded of that as well.
Father God, I recognize that my sin affects my family and those I care about. If I didn’t have any other reason to hate sin, that would be enough. Please, by your grace, cleanse me of my sin and give me a course correction as often as I need it.