So you think you’ve got it all figured out? Think again.
The proverb that stands at the beginning of our reading from Ezekiel was a common understanding of justice: The children will pay for the sins of their parents, and subsequent generations are “punished” for the misdeeds of those who came before them.
For the exiled audience of Ezekiel’s time, it was more than just a way of understanding their present circumstances. It was also an easy out. A way of passing the blame. They thought they had it all figured out.
Think again. That’s not how it works. You don’t get to play the blame game anymore. The “children” are just as complicit as the “parents.” Each person will be judged by their own merit. It’s a pretty law-heavy passage, and there’s not a whole lot of room for good news here.
And yet, God is a God who desires life. A God who takes no pleasure in the death or demise of any of God’s children. A God who cared so deeply for the people of Nineveh in last week’s story from Jonah that God ultimately spared the city so that they might live.
God’s ultimate bias is always toward life.
Not that it lets us off the hook. God confronts the exiles with their own complicity in their present circumstances – and challenges them to do better – Turn, and live!
Repentance is about more than just what we say. It’s about we do and how we live.
Jesus tells us a parable of two children – one who says she won’t do what her father says but ends up doing it anyway, and one who says he will but ends up not doing it. And then the stunning pronouncement: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
The ones who would have been deemed “the worst of the worst” are the ones who get it. The ones onto whom it’s easy to pass judgment and assign blame. The ones who, by all appearances, don’t “belong.”
Jesus’s parable, like grace itself, is challenging. It challenges the self-righteous arrogance of those who think they have it all figured out. Those who, like the second child in the parable, say what they’re supposed to but don’t live like it. Those who think they have no need of grace because they haven’t done anything wrong.
Consistently throughout the pages of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has shown us what God’s kingdom looks like. A kingdom where we are called to forgive not seven times, but as many as seventy-seven times, and then some. A kingdom where we are told to treat our siblings like we would a Gentile or tax collector – the same crowd that Jesus sits down and eats with. A kingdom where there is grace for all, whether we showed up at the beginning of the day or the very end.
God’s kingdom is a kingdom that always chooses inclusion over exclusion, justice over retribution, life over death.
Instead, we’re the ones who draw lines. We’re the ones who set up neat boundaries. We’re the ones who talk the talk and think that’s that. We’re the ones who think we have it figured out and set ourselves apart from others who don’t. We do the lip service of justice but offer little follow-through in our actions.
Instead, God calls us to repentance – to turn and live. A new heart and a new spirit. A spiritual about-face. God calls the exiles in Ezekiel to recognize their own complicity, and Jesus’s parable shows us two children, neither of whom technically do what their father has asked. We, with them, stand in need of grace. And in both cases, we are met with a God who yearns for us to choose life and who welcomes into the kingdom even the tax collectors and prostitutes.
This is an invitation to grace – a recognition of our brokenness, our complicity in systems that harm our fellow siblings, systems that destroy life instead of upholding it. And this is an invitation to change systems.
The God who offers us grace and life calls us to bold action – more than just words in a rite of confession and forgiveness.
The writer Anne Lamott has said, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
Grace doesn’t leave us where it found us. Grace calls us into a new way of being and living. Grace calls us to choose life and to reject the ways of death. Grace calls us to condemn white supremacy and racism, and to declare the lives of our siblings of color are sacred, that their lives matter.
Grace calls us to risk vulnerability and to be opened to being changed and to bring about change for a more just world … to gather around the table of mercy, hands outstretched for the bread of life and cup of salvation that become hands raised up in protest of injustice.
Our actions speak louder than our words.
They will know we are Christians – not by our creeds, constitutions, by-laws, parochial reports, and budgets – but by our love.
They will know we are Christians by the way we live out our baptismal calling to strive for justice and peace in all the earth, and by the way we risk everything for the sake of the gospel.