This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily reading
Ezekiel 18 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised)
18 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? 3 As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.
5 If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right— 6 if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbour’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, 7 does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 8 does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, 9 follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully—such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God.
10 If he has a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, 11 who does any of these things (though his father[a] does none of them), who eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbour’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13 takes advance or accrued interest; shall he then live? He shall not. He has done all these abominable things; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.
14 But if this man has a son who sees all the sins that his father has done, considers, and does not do likewise, 15 who does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbour’s wife, 16 does not wrong anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 17 withholds his hand from iniquity,[b] takes no advance or accrued interest, observes my ordinances, and follows my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. 18 As for his father, because he practised extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, he dies for his iniquity.
19 Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.
21 But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. 23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? 24 But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die.
This sets out, perhaps for the first time in the Jewish tradition, the doctrine of individual responsibility before God. If Ezekiel did preach this doctrine, his fellow Jews in exile might have asked how then God could punish the whole people for the sins of their leaders. If God judged individuals justly, how could he have punished the innocent along with the guilty? Ezekiel does not answer this question but rather moves away from the the doctrine of corporate responsibility before God which had been central to the previous prophets of Israel. God does not desire any one’s death, says Ezekiel, he simply wants people to turn towards his goodness. Those who do so shall live; those who turn away shall die.
I think Ezekiel means that evildoers will suffer early or catastrophic deaths, while decent folk will live long.
This does not seem to be confirmed by experience.
The Christian tradition, conscious that few are reached by God’s justice in life, has postponed God’s reckoning until after death: evil people will be punished by the “second death”, that is,by utter extinction. It holds nevertheless to Ezekiel’s teaching that God desires nobody’s death. Only those who love death more than life will perish. We may think that that the doctrine of individual responsibility is natural. That’s because we inherit a way of thinking pioneered by Ezekiel.
In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, we should note that it applies, not to individuals, but to “nations”. Although he taught individual responsibility before God, he also taught that individuals are responsible for the society they create. Of course there are those, whom Jesus called the least important, who are victims of society, whose condition is the fact by which societies are judged. Jesus built on what he learned from Ezekiel.