Seminaries, the graduate schools which train people for ministry, have a different look to them these days than they used to. The majority of the students today are not 22- or 23-year-olds who have come straight from college, but instead fall into the category called “second-career” – they have left some other occupation in their mid-20’s, mid-30’s, or mid-40’s, and enrolled in a 3 or 4 year program to train for a new career in ministry. They are people like me, and Laurie.
Phil was one of those second-career seminarians. Phil had been a banker; he had gone to business school and then worked his way up through the ranks to a middle-management position in a respected bank. But Phil had gradually recognized that he was being called by God out of the banking industry and into the ministry, and he quit his job, sold his house, and moved to a small efficiency apartment on the seminary campus to begin three years of classes – three years of hard work with little or no income; three years which, at best, would result in his starting his career over again at the ground floor; three years, though, which would leave him doing what God had called him to do.
Phil was anxious to get started in his new career, so he ignored the advice of those who said he should concentrate entirely on his studies that first year at school, and took a position as student pastor of a small church near the seminary. He was full of enthusiasm for both his school and his church; he had listened to God’s call and eagerly awaited a new and fulfilling life.
But it wasn’t long before Phil’s dream began to fall apart. The classes were harder than he expected, with much more reading and study time required. The focus was much more academic and intellectual than he anticipated, with lots of lectures, lots of note-taking, lots of tests and papers. This wasn’t the combination of Sunday School and college campus fellowship he had expected! He found he had a hard time with Greek in particular, and his first round of grades was very low.
Things weren’t going well at the church either. Phil found that the ideas he had been brimming over to preach about boiled down to about five sermons, and that Sundays seemed to come around relentlessly afterward, finding him unprepared. The people weren’t as energetic and excited as he anticipated, and didn’t fall all over themselves volunteering for his new projects. They complained when he changed the order of worship to the way he wanted it, and grumbled when his sermons rambled on until 11:45.
School wasn’t fun anymore, church wasn’t fun anymore, and Phil didn’t see much hope for things getting any easier or any more fun. By the end of his first year, when he nearly flunked out and when the church explained to him that . . . well, they had decided to try a new student pastor, he realized that he wasn’t cut out to be a minister, that God wanted him to do something else with his life. Just as surely as he had known he was supposed to go to seminary, he now knew he was supposed to leave.
Phil’s first reaction was one of extreme discouragement, of course, but this soon changed to one of anger – anger at God. “Why did you bring me here then?” he shouted at God. “Why did you have me quit my job, sell my house and move away from my friends, if you were just going to change your mind and show me I’m not supposed to be here?” How can you tell me ‘Yes’ and then turn around and say ‘No’? How dare you change the rules once I’m started.”
The dilemma of the Israelites, in Babylon, in the 6th century B.C., may not be quite as personal, but it is similar. They have been brought up to hear, and built a society around, the belief that there was group responsibility for an action, that if one committed a sin, their children and grandchildren would suffer for it; also that they should expect to suffer for the sins committed by their parents and grandparents. That’s what this saying in Ezekiel 18 means: “the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Mom and Dad decided to eat these grapes, to do a certain action, and the outcome is so sour, the after-effects so bad, that the children can feel them – their mouths too are plagued by the sourness. Whatever the bad thing is that the parents did, the consequences will be suffered by the children too. It’s a harsh rule, but not unimaginable to us.
If we pollute our air and water, for example, our children will suffer for what we did. If we oppress a group of people, our children may very well have to deal with their anger, or pay them back. That was the rule, as laid down by God: You do something wrong, and several generations suffer for it. It is expressed most directly in Exodus 20, verse 5: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generation.”
The Israelites had come to learn the saying and to accept it. Children suffer for parents’ sins- that’s the rule. And now that they had finally learned it and accepted it, here comes a prophet, Ezekiel, a man speaking for God, and what does he tell them? He says: Thus says the Lord: the rules have changed! This proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. The child shall not suffer for the iniquity of the parent, nor the parent for the iniquity of the child. Sour grapes don’t affect the children’s teeth anymore; the rules have changed.
The Israelites, like our seminarian, Phil, are probably entitled to ask, as they do in verse 25, “What gives, God? How can you say one thing one time and then turn around and say the opposite?” And as we try to discern God’s will, especially as it is expressed in the Bible, we have to ask too sometimes: Look, God, I’ve got one thing written on page 106 of my Old Testament, and the opposite on page 1424. How can what we understand to be God’s Word change? Why is it that what my minister is telling me now . . . is the opposite of what my minister 20 years ago said? That the lesson I read in my Adult Sunday School book goes against what my dear old 2nd grade Sunday School teacher said? How can what we understand to be God’s message change?
Imagine for a moment that you had structured your life around Ben Franklin’s saying “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” that you had been taught that a good person, one seeking God’s favor, would plan their schedule that way, that you had worked hard to follow that way of life, had practiced going to sleep early and setting that stupid alarm for forty years – and then a person whom you believed to be speaking for God came up to you and said “NO. God loves someone who stays up late and sleeps late; who burns the midnight oil and just barely makes it up for lunch; who watches Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert but doesn’t even know who Al Roker is. Yeah, I know we taught you that God wants you going to bed early and getting up early, but that’s no longer true. The rules have changed.” Now, I’m sure that some among us here would rejoice at such a change, that some among us view “morning people” as some unnatural alien species. But even those who would rejoice at such a rule–change would have to wonder: How can what we understand to be God’s word change?
Imagine hearing that God had announced that there’s no longer any point in going to church, or that there’s no reason to pray anymore. We would respond like the Israelites of Ezekiel’s time: How can what we understand to be God’s word change?
One possibility is that we just plain had it wrong the first time, that we misunderstood. Maybe what we thought God had said instead was something just said by a person, like Ben Franklin. Did you know, for example, that the saying “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is not in the Bible? Neither is “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” They’re popular sayings, and maybe even helpful, but they’re not Biblical, just popular human sayings. Maybe what Phil thought was a call from God into the ministry, for example, was really just his own desire to go back to school instead of going to work every day, his way of getting out of the rat race.
Or maybe what we thought God said really was something said by God, but we didn’t hear it quite right. The Israelites were correct in expecting a Messiah, for example; their only mistake was in expecting a Messiah who would be a warrior-king, driving out the Romans with armies of angels, instead of a Prince of Peace, a baby in a stable, a martyr on a cross. The first possibility, when God’s word seems to have changed, is that we just heard it wrong the first time.
The second possibility we have to admit, though, is that God did in fact change. Because there are occasional instances of this happening in the Bible. God decided more than once to wipe out the Israelites when they were going across the desert; the golden calf episode, in Exodus 33, is one example. God announces: “It’s over. I’ve decided. I am going to consume them and start over with Moses alone instead.” But Moses talks God out of it – God has a change of heart after Moses’ speech, and decides not to destroy the people after all. It may give us an uncomfortable feeling, but I think we have to acknowledge it: God may change sometimes.
A third possibility is that God didn’t actually change, but that human understanding of God changed. The book of Ezekiel was written several hundred years after the book of Exodus, where we found the rule about punishing children and grandchildren; it is by a different person, in a completely different set of circumstances, to a whole new group of people. In the hundreds of years which separate Exodus and Ezekiel, maybe human understanding of God improved – maybe it got worse.
Think of how your understanding of God has changed over the relatively short period of your life. Most children envision God as a sort of Santa Claus, making lists of who’s naughty and nice, and handing out rewards or punishments accordingly. I would hope that our understanding of God as we become adults would change, would develop, as we grow older.
And the fourth possibility is that it isn’t God who has changed, or human understanding, but humanity itself. Think of children again, who need one set of rules when they’re five, another when they’re thirteen, another when they’re seventeen. We wouldn’t think of trying to impose the five-year-old’s rules on the seventeen-year-old, not if we want them to ever speak to us again. Maybe humanity has developed in a similar way, needing one set of rules at one point, but a different set later on.
After all, Exodus was written first, saying that several generations would suffer for a person’s sin. Jeremiah wrote many years later, saying: A time will come when the grapes saying is no longer true, but that instead each will be held responsible for their own sin (31:29). Finally, a few years after Jeremiah, Ezekiel announces: That time is here; the grapes saying is no more; children will no longer suffer for their parents’ sin. Maybe humanity has matured and doesn’t need the grapes rule anymore.
Whatever the reason – whether we had it wrong the first time; whether God changed; whether our understanding of God changed; or whether humanity changed – two points come through to us from Ezekiel’s announcement that the rules have changed. One is that we should never be too sure of our rules. Arrogance is born from the idea that I know the rules, I know what God wants, and I can’t possibly be wrong. Certain Israelites were so sure that the Messiah had to be a warrior-king that Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah, to them. Certain kings and countries have been so sure that God was on their side that they’ve lost thousands of people or killed thousands of people – to no end. Certain churchgoers have been so sure that they alone knew what God wanted that they’ve split church bodies, or quit the church entirely. It’s a good idea to always keep in the back of our minds the possibility that the rules may be different from what we think – that we may be mistaken, or they may have changed.
The second point has to do with the nature of this particular change in the rules, Ezekiel’s transition from group responsibility to individual responsibility. Notice how this new understanding of God’s standards reveals an idea of God as more patient, more forgiving, less vengeful. Rather than generations of people being punished for a mistake, only one is held responsible; the judgement aspect is quite limited. This seems to be a pattern throughout the Bible, and throughout Christian history: the more our understanding of God develops, the more we see a God of patience, grace, and forgiveness rather than judgement and anger.
When Jesus came and modified humanity’s thinking about God, his emphasis was on God’s love and God’s grace; he presented God the loving parent rather than God the rule-enforcer. When Paul led the early church to a new understanding of God’s charge to it, it was an expansion of God’s grace and love – Gentiles too are the recipients of God’s grace; they aren’t automatically under judgement just because they’re Gentiles. The more we learn about God, the more we see God’s grace, forgiveness, and love. We move away from the idea of God as policeman-who-wants-to-stop-everyone-from-having-any-fun, and learn of God as a loving, forgiving parent.
Phil ended up working, very happily, for a local community service organization that served the poor, using his banking experience to help counsel people on how to do financial planning, how to live according to a budget, how to manage their limited amount of money.
He came to see that he, first, had heard God’s message a little wrong – that what he thought was a call to church ministry was in fact just a call to seminary, a necessary first step away from his former job. He realized, second, that God had in fact sent two messages, the first one to bring him to seminary and the second one to take him away; otherwise, he would have always wondered if he should have gone into church ministry, and he never would have gotten to his new job. Phil came to see, third, that his understanding of God and what ministry is, had developed, due to his quick journey into and out of school. And he realized, fourth, that he had developed as a person and as a Christian, and was ready now to respond to God in ways he never could have if the two-step call hadn’t come to him.
Phil was relieved that he had been open enough to hear God’s second call, away from seminary – that he hadn’t insisted, “No, I know what God wants and I’m going to stay here and be a pastor”; it would have been a mistake. And he gave thanks that he had so directly experienced that fact that God is a God of love and grace, who cared enough for him to bring him to a new and fulfilling place in his life, by sending two messages, which at first seemed so incompatible, to him.
Let us pray:
God, sometimes we become very set in our ways, convinced that we know all the rules, and your intent for us. Help us to be open to the possibility that there is something new for us to learn or to understand or to respond to, as the Israelites heard from Ezekiel. Help us to be ever more aware of your grace and love. Amen.