In today’s Old Testament reading from the Daily Office, the prophet Ezekiel confronts an attitude that’s a little hard for us, I think, to imagine people ever held. Apparently, it was “accepted wisdom” at the time that children would and should be held responsible for the sins of their parents, and vice versa. But at the Lord’s leading, Ezekiel insists that each individual will be held responsible for their own wrongdoing.
What’s interesting to me, however, is the description of wickedness that Ezekiel uses to drive his point home. Three times in this chapter, he presents a character sketch that contrasts the “life of the righteous” with the “life of the wicked”; and each time, the relevant areas of behavior are the same:
- The wicked man “eats at the mountain shrines.” This has to do with idolatry, which most of us, I think, would agree is wrong.
- The wicked man “defiles his neighbor’s wife.” Yes, we’re all aware of how the Bible condemns sexual sin.
- The wicked man “oppresses the poor and needy” and “commits robbery.” Okay, that’s clearly wrong. But exactly what kind of behavior is being condemned? Well, based on the contrasting example of the righteous man: “He does not oppress anyone, but returns what he took in pledge for a loan. He does not commit robbery, but gives his food to the hungry and provide clothing for the naked.” Does this mean that oppression and robbery have a lot to do with the way we treat those in need? Interesting. Let’s keep going.
- The wicked man “lends at interest and takes a profit,” while the righteous man “does not lend to them (the needy) at interest or take a profit from them.” Gee, much of our current economy is based on taking interest — especially from those who can least afford it.
- The wicked man “does detestable things,” while the righteous man “follows My decrees and faithfully keeps My laws.”
This is not the context to launch into a lengthy discussion of biblical righteousness. But in an age in which we are sometimes guilty of limiting holiness to personal choices about sex and substances and what we do with our Sunday mornings (which are definitely important), the Bible has a stubborn way of reminding us that holiness and righteousness also have an unavoidable “social” element — and element that confronts us with how we treat the poor, the needy, and the most vulnerable among us.
The good news, of course, is that God wants all the wicked (including us) to repent and experience abundant life. Through the prophet He asks: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” declares the Sovereign LORD. “Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23)
May we turn from all wickedness today — both personal and social — and may we exhibit the kind of righteousness that brings the blessing of God to those who need it most.