I’ve always been partial to Ezekiel’s verse in chapter 36 that has God saying, “I will take from you your stony hearts and give you natural hearts…” It’s something I hold onto when I’m feeling ungenerous or grumpy – or worse. This morning however, in the earlier text from Ezekiel, chapter 18: 21-28, I read a serious message about bad and good behavior and the consequences of turning in one direction or the other. In case we miss it in the first reading, the verse before the gospel says this: Cast away from you all the crimes you have committed, says the Lord, and make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. (18:31) The lesson for today, then, is that we have a responsibility to work toward restoring ourselves to God’s image rather than letting God do all the work.
There is more to this story, however, that resolves the apparent contradiction in the above comments. Why did Ezekiel change his mind from chapter 18 to chapter 36? The story goes that Ezekiel became a prophet in Babylon during the exile, and “his first task was to prepare his fellow countrymen in Babylon for the final destruction of Jerusalem, which they believed to be inviolable. Accordingly, the first part of his book consists of reproaches for Israel’s past and present sins and the confident prediction of yet a further devastation of the land of promise and a more general exile. In 587 BCE, when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem, Ezekiel was vindicated before his unbelieving compatriots.” (New American Bible commentary, p. 972)
The good news of Ezekiel’s prophecy which I quoted at the beginning of this reflection is that God never does abandon the human race, but there are questions that arise, I think, from a comparison of the Israelites’ situation to the state of our fractured nation today. Have we been shaken enough by the division and violence that continues to occur in our country and the world to wake up? Will we take the responsibility to change our own hearts and cooperate with God in moving toward unity and care for one another before we devolve into a people who will lose any semblance of humanity? I know those questions sound alarmist and dire but the story of the Israelites this morning calls me to look deeply into my own spirit and ask myself about my behavior. Am I so sure that I am “above the fray” by saying my life is on a spiritual path? Do I avoid difficult conversations because I think I have the right answers and don’t trust people on “the other side” to be rational about differences? Is praying for movement toward peace and reconciliation enough to do if I am unwilling to leave my prayer space to reach out to anyone I see as unsafe or uncomfortable? The blindness of the Israelites and the severity of Ezekiel’s message this morning have touched me as never before and shaken my passivity as one who believes that God will always save us. I still know that truth but now ask myself how long I am willing to watch what we are doing to each other before I give God some active help in the effort of our reconciliation. A sobering question for this first Friday of Lent…