In today's Old Testament reading the prophet Ezekiel delivers this message from God:
"The word of the LORD came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge"? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 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."
Apparently, the proverb "The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge" (and its cousin, "The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children") was common in Ezekiel's time. But Ezekiel believes he has a "word from the Lord" to challenge Israel's "conventional wisdom." "This proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel." No longer shall the next generation suffer for the sings of their parents. Rather, a person shall only be held accountable for what he or she does.
Ezekiel was setting out a radically individualistic view of the world. Ezekiel's revisionism was at odds with the whole sweep of Israel's history but is a good fit for the way the modern West (and especially the U.S.) understands human nature. We live in an individualistic civilization. Ezekiel's vision of individual responsibility is very consistent with our prevailing philosophy. "Everyone for himself" or "Every tub on its own bottom" is our motto.
But I wonder... are we really a group of separate, discrete individuals, spinning freely through social space, connecting with each other at will, or is it true, as John Donne wrote, that "no man is an island, separate unto himself"?
I want to challenge Ezekiel's view. Consider two examples:
First, the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks the French newspaper Le Monde published an editorial in which the writer boldly stated, "Today all of us are Americans." Watching the disaster of Hurrican Katrina unfold in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast I felt (and you probably did, too) that "All of us are New Orleanians." It was a disaster for which all of us must bear some of the blame, and the rebuilding of New Orleans is a responsibility that all of us must share. This impulse or feeling that what happened in New Orleans somehow happened to all of us and is an event for which all of us are responsible is at odds with our prevailing philosophy of individualism.
Second, have you ever read or hear the story of some horrific crime only to be told that the perpetrator was so badly abused as a child that he or she was morally and emotionally impaired and was really not fully responsible for the crime they had committed? That is cold comfort to the victims of such crimes who are seeking justice.
Make no mistake: there are disfunctional families that warp and wound children so badly that a life of crime is almost inevitable. There is good reason to focus on families rather than individuals; the families in which we grew up either gave us love, nurture, and encouragement that enabled us to grow and strive and excel and exceed, or they damaged and warped us and left us with a burden of rage that we act out on each other and on ourselves.
We speak of a child having her father's eyes, or his mother's mouth. Is it possible that behavior is inherited, too? Are the behaviors and habits learned in early childhood so firmly fixed that they cannot be greatly changed, much less completely eliminated?
Most of what we have and who we are is a given. We do not choose the families into which we are born, our skin or eye color is fixed by our ancestors, our body type is genetically determined, even our religion, to a great degree, is determined by the culture and family into which we are born.
There is much good sound theology in affirming that human life is corporate. The Christian faith is undeniably a "family affair".
Several years ago Anglican History and Heritage featured an editorial which asserted, "The Bible is a we book, not an I book. In the Old Testament, God addressed the nation, Israel, the Children of Israel, the people, and so forth.... In the New Testament the gentiles were brought into the covenant with Israel. As in the ancient time, so now, it was the church that was addressed by God... it is these Christians collectively who are 'a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people...' (1 Peter 2.9). ...one wonders why Anglicans, clergy and laity alike, seem unable -- or unwilling -- to grasp the corporate character of their lives even within their own communion.... Is it forgotten that we worship from a Book of Common Prayer?" (v. LXII, no. 3, pp. 311-312)
So, I want to challenge Ezekiel: sometimes when the parents eat sour grapes, the children's teeth are set on edge.
"But now," as longtime radio announcer Paul Harvey might say, "For the rest of the story." Our environment and genetic heritage do not tell the whole tale. We are not fixed and determined like animals or machines.
In fact, the dichotomy, either free or fixed, determined or self-willing, is a false dichotomy. Much is fixed in our lives, but much is free. Our families do shape us, but they do not determine everything that we do.
We are both determined by our genetic heritage and environment in which we were raised and yet somehow free and responsible for our choices.
The parable in today's gospel reading is an illustration. Jesus tells of a father and two sons. One son has the knack of saying the right thing, and then doing whatever he pleases. The other son is a rebel, always saying the wrong thing, but in the end doing the right thing. The story tells us that even within the same family, persons with the same environment and genetic heritage may react in complete different ways to the same situation. Choices are possible.
In Twelve Step programs, persons in recovery admit that they are powerless. Powerless, though, is not the same thing as helpless. Alcoholics are powerless to change the fact that they are alcoholics, but they can choose not to take the next drink.
I confess that I am something of a "bleeding heart". If a person has a sad enough story about a broken and abusive family, I am ready to excuse even the most appalling behavior. But that is not right.
There is a difference between holding persons responsible for their actions and sitting in judgment on them. We do well not to sit in judgment on those whose environment left them emotionally crippled and morally impaired, because our good deeds are as much a product of our environments as their crimes are a product of theirs.
You and I are able to attend and complete college, hold down jobs, and pay our bills because that is how we are raised. Those of us who have grown up with loving, caring, and compassionate parents in relative affluence and comfort (and that is most of us) need to remember that that comfort is God's gift, not our achievement. Our responsibility is in proportion to what we have been given, and we do well to be forgiving and understanding to men and women who have not been given the advantages we have been given.
The well-being of society demands that each of us be held accountable for his or her deeds.
God's good news is this: Neither our genes nor our environment determine who we can be or what we may do. God has loved us into being and will keep on loving us no matter how many times we fail. Indeed, I believe that God's love will not let us go but will refine us like fire until all that is amiss in us is redeemed and restored. The good news is this: The family, the environment, the culture into which we are born does shape us, but we are part of a larger family, we are claimed by a love even greater than our parents' love for us. In baptism we are born into God's family, and the love that embraces us in water and the Name of the Trinity will nurture us without fail, will support us and hold us up, will not warp us but will guide us straight and true.