This text from Ezekiel is not the cheeriest of Scripture readings. It kind of fits the weather this weekend, but it’s not the easiest to hear, is it? There are a few points that might help us shed light on where Ezekiel is coming from.
In the time and culture he’s writing the traditional view is that the sins of one generation are visited on future generations, and that a parent can be punished for the sin of a child as well. But God says here that this is not true- only the individual sinner shall die. And what’s more, if the sinner repents, that person shall live. It sounds very harsh to our ears, but to the original hearers it would have resounded with mercy compared to the prevailing worldview.
Now it’s always uncomfortable to hear the word judgment in the- or at least it is for me. But in Scripture judgment plays a particular role in the life of an individual and a community. Judgment never stands by itself. God exercises judgment to inspire repentance, so that the people can experience redemption, so that they can turn from their wrongs and instead embrace goodness.
And that’s precisely the point of this passage. Israel is complaining that God is not fair. God’s counter-argument is that they are not fair. The people are avoiding responsibility for their actions and rather than looking at themselves and at their way of life, they’re blaming their circumstances on God. The point of it is not finally that they have sinned, even though that’s part of it, but that they have the opportunity to repent, to ‘turn, then, and live.’
We could write a child’s translation of this Scripture and it would probably sound very familiar to all of us. How old were you the first time you uttered the phrase ‘It’s not fair!!’? For me it was probably about the time I learned the words. And actually, it’s been my experience that many of us carry this phrase into our adult lives. We might drop the whininess from it- or not- but it’s there in our life vocabulary.
Sometimes when we cry that life or that God is unfair, we’ve actually got a point. Life is frequently unfair and occasionally that manifests itself with tragedy and crisis. Sometimes that cry that God is unfair is a way of expressing unbearable pain at awful life circumstances by putting the burden on the only One who could possibly bear it for us.
There was a man who lived in the mid- to late- 19th century named Samuel Schereschewsky, who is honored by the Episcopal Church in a document called Lesser Feasts and Fasts. He was sent by the Church to China and devoted himself to translating the Bible into Mandarin Chinese until he was elected Bishop of Shanghai. He continued his good works until he developed Parkinson’s disease, was largely paralyzed, and had to resign his position. It seems to me that this man would have every right to be angry at contracting this disease and to cry ‘UNFAIR!’ And it’s possible that he did at one time and that we don’t know about it. What we do know is that he dedicated the rest of his life towards completing a translation of the Bible into Wenlii Chinese, and that he typed the last 2000 pages with the one finger that he could still move.
Several years before his death, he is quoted as saying: “I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, God doesn’t inflict pain and suffering on us, even for the cause of bringing us to our life’s destiny. We find meaning in our suffering when we can feel the pain of it and give it to God- getting angry with God if we need to. And- when we’re ready- allowing that pain to lead us to action: into loving service. Action and service won’t change the nature of our circumstances, but it helps us to bear it, because it reminds us that God is holding us up with arms of love.
Sometimes when we cry that life or that God is unfair, it is a cry of injustice.
Ana Martinez is a teacher who was wrongly arrested and imprisoned for drug trafficking when smugglers who had been tracking her every move stashed drugs in her trunk to transport them across the Mexican/US border. This is apparently fairly common. No one would have blamed her for saying that life is unfair, or that God is unfair. She was eventually cleared following an investigation by the FBI, but during the months she spent in jail the 35-year-old mother of two passed the time by offering English classes to other inmates.
She could have chosen self-righteous anger or pity, and it’s possible that this was part of her story too, but she didn’t completely give into it. Instead she did what she could with her time to help others.
Fair or unfair, just or unjust, we don’t have total control over what happens to us, even though we might like to think that we do. Even though we might try to live like we do. But what we do have is choice: we get to decide how we use the time that is given to us. As Desmond Tutu said, we get to decide whether unjust circumstances ‘embitter us or ennoble us.’
And perhaps this is most important when we are the ones witnessing an injustice being done toward another. Sometimes we feel powerless in the face of injustice. But the truth is that one person doing the next best thing makes a world of difference, and can inspire others to do the same.
Sometimes when we cry that life or that God is unfair, it’s a way to direct blame someplace else and to deny or avoid responsibility for our own actions.
If there are patterns in our lives- patterns of unhappiness or of crisis it might be unhappy coincidence or just plain bad luck- things over which we have no control. And it might be that there is a behavior or something inside of us that is contributing to these patterns.
Someone who had lost a lot and suffered a lot due to destructive behaviors, a lot of which had to do with addiction, was reflecting on his life and said that he used to blame God but he knew it was really all his fault. He said “I know more than I’m living.” It’s this kind of self-reflection that can lead to real repentance and a better way of life.
As a wise man once wrote, “When we learn to identify and embrace our sin and brokenness, and surrender to God, we begin to bring healing to ourselves and to our world.’
Life is not always fair. And you know, the people Ezekiel was talking to were onto something. God’s not really fair either. Fair is one of those bland words like nice or fine or okay- it doesn’t capture the breadth and depth of who God is, or how much God loves us.
God is just. God is loving and merciful. And God is faithful. And what that means for us is this:
That when life has given us more than our fair share of suffering, that God weeps with us and holds us up. It means that when systems or people are unjust, that God is angry along with us- and calls us and helps us to act in ways that work for justice. It means that when we are stuck in patterns of sin that God walks with us through the painful process of self-reflection and repentance and leads us on the road of redemption.
Life is not fair. And God is not fair either. God loves us too much for that.