“When a sinner renounces sin to become law-abiding and honest, he deserves to live. He has chosen to renounce all his previous sins; he shall certainly live; he shall not die.”
The Prophet Ezekiel was uncompromising in his judgment of the choices that define our lives. The sinner shall die. The repentant sinner shall most certainly live. Such stark language rankles with the easy compromise that accompanies the moral debate of contemporary society.
The strength of Ezekiel’s language must be understood against the context of his times. Ezekiel’s generation were far from blameless. Israel’s southern kingdom was in meltdown, threatened internally by a moral collapse that jeopardised the very fabric of society. The poor were exploited to the benefit of the privileged few. Institutionalised religion was no longer a matter of the heart. The nation lacked the moral and material resources to withstand the threat of its more powerful neighbours. What was to be done?
Rather than blaming the past, or escaping into a collective inertia in which nobody accepted responsibility, Ezekiel concentrated on individual conscience and choice. We cannot individually account for the complex circumstances that have led society to its present situation, but we can be held responsible for the choices that we make each and every day.
The recent riots on our streets have led to a wide-ranging discussion concerning their causes. Many feel powerless confronted with what seems to be a death-wish at the heart of our society. Ezekiel placed the initiative firmly with the individual. It is not, in theory, alone that we build a better society. Only when individuals take responsibility for their own actions, beginning to live by what God has put in their hearts, does our society choose life rather than death. Analysis will take us only so far. To care about the society in which we live is to first take responsibility for our own lives. Judged from this perspective our choices are indeed a matter of life and death.
The Parable of the Two Sons examines our moral choices from a different perspective. A father invited his two sons to work in the vineyard. The first son refused, but later thought better of it and went into the vineyard. The second agreed to work in the vineyard but failed to translate his good intentions into practice. Simple though the narrative appears, it underlines the inescapable truth that the world is not changed by what we say, but by what we actually do. We can have many opinions about what is right and wrong about our society, but it is only when we go into the vineyard, when we begin to live our lives in love and justice, peace and reconciliation, that we contribute to its well-being.
St Paul, writing to the Philippians, rooted every moral choice in a living relationship with Christ. He was addressing a community which, like every family and neighbourhood, had its tensions and difficulties. In the face of mounting division he spoke of humility, the humility of Christ himself. We are always in danger of destroying ourselves when we engage in a battle of claim and counter-claim, blame and accusation. Healing comes only from him who did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself. Before we stand in judgment over the difficulties faced by our society, let us first stand in humility before a suffering Lord.
“In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus”: this must be our first and fundamental choice.