Lent 3 · Ezekiel 33:7-20 · March 7, 2010
By Jeffrey Kloha
Ezekiel’s ministry took place among the captives taken to Babylon in the early sixth century BC prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. They were already experiencing God’s judgment. The cry of 33:10 expresses the crush of this judgment: “Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?” This is the cry of those who no longer have hope, who have seen firsthand the result of their sin. This pericope is a recapitulation of the first half of Ezekiel: 33:1-9 echoes 3:16-21, while 33:10-20 is nearly identical to 18:21-25. This recapitulation serves a rhetorical purpose, since 33:21 marks the transition point in Ezekiel, when one who escaped the destruction of Jerusalem arrives and announces, “The city has fallen.” From that point on, Ezekiel’s message is one of restoration, not judgment. The function of 33:1-20, therefore, is to remind God’s people once again that his judgment is not some distant, far off event to be safely ignored, but real and terrifying. “How can we live?”
The Concordia Commentary by Horace Hummel covers the textual issues quite well, so repetition is not necessary here. One issue should be noted, however. Both the ESV and the NIV translations fall into some unhelpful traps when rendering both צִדָקָה (“righteousness”) and רֶשַׁע (“wickedness”). “Righteousness” in these verses is not some kind of abstract status, as seems to be assumed by modern translations. Rather, it refers to the “righteousness” evident in one’s “life” or “ways” or “deeds.” What God in fact desired of his people was that they lead righteous lives, to “do justice and righteousness” (33:16-19). They had not done so, instead committing “unrighteousness” (as Hummel translates it), a theme repeatedly emphasized in Ezekiel 1—24. As a result they were now suffering the consequences. Therefore, the wrongheaded claims of God’s people in this chapter are not that they were trusting in “human righteousness” and should instead trust in “God’s (imputed) righteousness.” The problem is that they should have been “doing righteousness” but were not. Perhaps they had once, but that did not matter before God. What he demanded—immediately—was their turning around to live new lives, to repent. They thought that they were suffering unjustly (33:20), that they had some stored up credit for their past righteous behavior and that radical change of life was not necessary. In their eyes, God should overlook their “small” mistakes. What God saw, however, was not the past. Whether yesterday they did righteousness or unrighteousness did not matter. What mattered was what they would do today.
Lest one conclude that this is mere “Old Testament legalistic righteousness,” the other readings for this Sunday make precisely the same point. The gospel reading does so in parabolic form: “if the fig tree bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, cut it down” (Lk 13:9), while the epistle reading draws upon Israel’s history as a warning: “Nevertheless with most of [Israel according to the flesh] God was not pleased, for he scattered their bodies across the wilderness” (1 Cor 10:5). The function of all three readings for this Third Sunday in Lent is to strike fear into the heart of the sinner, so that they turn from their ways (i.e., “repent”) and, trusting in God’s mercy, do “justice and righteousness.”
Thoughts for Proclamation
The conscientious Lutheran preacher will no doubt balk at preaching any of these passages as a call to repentance and new life. We may be tempted either to not bother with “sanctification preaching” or to “explain away” the harsh language and the judgment of God, both as if God did not really expect his people to live faithful lives. But that would be difficult to justify textually when the Ezekiel passage is spoken to those who are actually in bondage because of their sin, and in 1 Corinthians God actually slew those who disobeyed him. God’s judgment on unrighteous behavior is quite real, even historical. And without the crush of the sinner, there is no Gospel. As Hummel remarks, portions of Ezekiel such as this one are frequently ignored, “as though a full-orbed Gospel could really be proclaimed without in-depth attention to the Law, a posture entirely at odds with any sturdy Lutheranism” (p. 970). The warning to the one who speaks in God’s name in Ezekiel 33:1-9 is particularly apt here: “I will hold the watchman accountable for [the sinner’s] blood” (33:6).
“How can we live?” is not a question typically asked by present-day Westerners. Economic “meltdowns” notwithstanding, most of our hearers are quite content with their situation. As a people, we have not experienced the crush of God’s judgment on sin the way that Judah experienced it. As a result, most people sitting in the pews and, I suspect, even most preachers, will frown upon calls to repentance and “threats” of punishment from God; they are too “unfriendly” and not “uplifting.” Indeed, Lent itself seems to be optional in many circles today. A danger we regularly face-just as did Judah in bondage—is to minimize or rationalize our sin, to think too highly of our “righteous deeds,” and to dismiss the reality of God’s judgment. Nevertheless, God’s basis of judgment is unavoidable: “I will judge each of you according to his own ways” (and note the repetition of this theme in Romans 2). The task of the preacher is to bring his hearers to recognize that even they, God’s people as was Judah, have fallen short of the righteous life he requires. Only he can make us “live.”
In this pericope we do not have any Gospel proclamation. That begins at Ezekiel 33:22, after the announcement of the destruction of Jerusalem, and becomes even more clear beginning in chapter 34, most explicitly in God himself becoming shepherd for his lost flock Judah. What Judah and her false prophets could not make happen, God himself will accomplish. In the midst of the loss of everything once held dear God alone makes them alive. The connection to the Messiah and his resurrection are obvious here: He himself lost all, but was made alive again. And so we, too, who have been baptized into Christ, have been made dead to sin and alive to God (Rom 6). We have been given new life, that is, we actually lead new lives, because Christ has been raised.