I’ve been working my way through Ezekiel with my Sunday School class, at their request, since I have frequently said that Leviticus, Ezekiel, and Hebrews are the books most formative of my own theology. When this is done, I will have been through all three books with this group.
One major difficulty in teaching through Ezekiel is that it is a rather dismal book. There are long passages promising and explaining judgment. There are various passages about the hardships Ezekiel endures as a prophet. At the same time, there are brief looks ahead toward a time of redemption, that the judgment is not intended to destroy and put an end to God’s people, but rather to restore and rebuild after a cleanup.
One temptation in interpreting Ezekiel and many other books of Hebrew Scripture (which I refer to as the Old Testament when understood as part of Christian scripture) is to see the failures of Israel as theological and ritual. Theological in the sense that they are believing wrong stuff. Ritual in the sense that worship is going astray. This meets a frequent Christian assumption that the Israelite religion was largely about ritual.
This is a mischaracterization of Israelite religion. Ritual was intended to teach. What is condemned by the prophets is not ritual as such, but rather the performance of ritual while failing to learn from the moral, ethical, and indeed spiritual lessons of such ritual. In modern terms, this is much like the Christian who goes to church and carries out whatever rituals are expected, but then heads out to be something quite different from what those rituals represent.
As an example, we can participate in the ritual of the Eucharist, or communion as many protestants prefer to call it, and then fail completely to put the unity that this illustrates into practice. “The body of Christ broken for you and for many” is shared because we are all in Christ, and Christ is in all of us. To go out and be denominationally competitive after receiving the body of Christ is to miss the point of the “one body.” To go out and abuse those less fortunate than we are, no matter what our reason is for looking down on them, is to miss the lesson of that broken body. Just before his body was broken, Jesus said to “love one another as I have loved you.” Then he went and died for us. Skip all the arguments about the reason for this. He died. For us.
The problem that Ezekiel is busy proclaiming is often expressed as idolatry, but then is brought home in the failure to care for those in need. In fact, when accusing Judah of sharing in the sins of Sodom, the lead point is: “She and her daughters had the pride that goes with food in plenty, comfort, and ease, yet she never helped the poor in their need” (Ezekiel 16:49 REB).
The problem with idolatry is not that you walk the wrong way or go to the wrong place, or that the ritual is performed incorrectly. Rather, it is a matter of lowered standards. I like to use a definition of idolatry cribbed from Paul Tillich: “Making something ultimate that is not ultimate.” As soon as you start worshiping something less than God, you start looking lower. When the potential goal is lowered, less is done.
This is the problem with using grace to deny law. The standard still needs to be there. I am a publisher. I am quite certain I have never produced the perfect book. But as soon as I dismiss the idea of a perfect book from my mind, knowing that I will not attain it, I will start working toward a lesser standard, and will, in turn, fail to meet that. Having failed, I lower the standard again, and fail to meet that.
One of the key points in Ezekiel 24 is blood guilt. If we go back to Deuteronomy 21:1-9, we’ll see the extreme importance the Torah places on life, and on the unlawful and unjustified taking of life. There the people are given a ritual for dealing with someone who is killed, but without witnesses, there is no way to assign guilt. The nearest community takes on the task of atoning. Ezekiel is addressing this blood guilt. The people are not dealing simply with erroneous theology. They are killing one another. They have not just worshiped other gods. They have destroyed other people.
Let me add a side-note here. I really, really don’t like the line “good in theory but bad in practice.” It is not that all theories work, but rather that a theory that cannot be put into practice is not a good theory. Similarly, I dislike having theology and doctrine lined up in opposition to how we treat people. “If you’re putting your doctrine above people, forget doctrine.” Rather, if your doctrine is one that justifies you in mistreating other people, reexamine your doctrine, because it has problems. Jesus says that all the law and the prophets hangs on the two laws, loving God and loving your neighbor. If it won’t hang there, it’s not a good doctrine.
But it is not the idea of “doctrine” that is bad. The idea that loving one’s neighbor is central is itself doctrine, and I believe good doctrine. Replace your bad doctrine with a good doctrine, one that fits with what Jesus made central.
Again, back to Ezekiel 24. I tend to jump around a bit. We don’t always go straight from the passage we’re studying to the way in which we will live for the following week.
Here are some key points:
- The reason the passage is dismal is that the situation is dismal. On the bright side, Judah returned from exile. Many cultures effectively disappeared after the sort of events that had happened to Judah. Failing to recognize what it is that one needs to be rescued from likely means failure to rescue at all.
- Ezekiel loses his wife and is instructed not to mourn, illustrating in his own actions what was happening to people back in Jerusalem, which was under siege at the time. We like to think of prophetic voices speaking from on high and informing the dismally flawed lesser mortals below of the error of their ways. The true prophetic voice operates differently. It lives in a community. It shares with the community. It is God’s voice inside, not outside.
- The prophet, when called by God doesn’t get to have an easy life. So many today think that if God has called them to some activity or another, they must have an easy, obstruction-free journey. We look for leaders whose lives are better than ours. As Christians, we should recognize that we serve a leader who was not recognized as such by the society in which he lived. Ezekiel exemplified this with the people. He suffered among them and with them. Silently.
- Finally, we should be tremendously encouraged by these facts. Easy, positive, glowing platitudes don’t provide comfort to the person who is suffering deeply. Such things may actually instead suggest that the sufferer is despised by God and make things even more difficult. That was the message of Job’s friends, whose speeches God refers to as “darkening wisdom by words without knowledge” (Job 38:2). One who can suffer with, who knows what the bad side of life is like, is also one who can rescue. God made “the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings” (Hebrews 2:10).
I’ll close with a short quote from Bruce Epperly’s book, Walking with Whitehead, in which he builds on a well-known quote from Whitehead:
God is the fellow sufferer who understands and the intimate companion who celebrates.Bruce G. Epperly, Walking with Whitehead, p. 39