Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
I know I’m going to regret referencing something like this this early—and I beg your forgiveness now—but growing up, one of my all-time favorite movies was Home Alone starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern. Back then, I didn’t care that it was *gasp* a Christmas movie. I loved it.
Culkin plays Kevin McCallister, a young kid who is accidentally left home alone when his extended family rushes out the door to go on a Paris vacation. Kevin goes on a number of adventures, including fighting off two criminals who want to rob Kevin’s house and wrongly assume that it will be easy pickings. There’s one scene in the movie that is particularly touching. During Kevin’s wild adventures alone, he decides to stop in a church when he hears singing coming from it. It’s a children’s choir practicing for later that night, and he sits down in a pew to listen for a while.
While he’s listening, his neighbor, Old Man Marley, whom Kevin is afraid of because his older brother told him urban legends about Marley being a murderer, enters the church and asks to sit down. Though Kevin is afraid, he agrees, and Old Man Marley sits, explaining that he’s there to listen to his granddaughter sing. But he has to come and listen to her now, because he won’t be welcome when she sings later that night.
Kevin finds out that years prior, before Kevin’s family moved to the neighborhood, Old Man Marley had a heated argument with his son. It got so bad that he told his son that he never wanted to see him again, and his son said the same. And so it’s been; neither Marley nor his son have spoken to each other since that day, and Marley has been cut out of his children’s and grandchildren’s lives. That’s why he’s not welcome later that night. Marley regrets the argument, and what’s happened because of it.
Kevin asks Marley a question: why don’t you call your son? And Marley answers that he doesn’t think his son would want to talk to him; it’s been too long, and he’s afraid that if he calls, he’ll be rejected. There’s too much bad blood between them. Still, Kevin tells Old Man Marley that he needs to call his son.
At the end of the movie—spoiler alert—Kevin looks out his window toward Marley’s house. And outside, he sees Old Man Marley, his granddaughter in his arms, and his son and daughter-in-law with him. He made the call. And his son was indeed willing to talk to him; and not just talk to him, to see him again. Marley waves to Kevin, tears in his eyes, and the four of them go into the house to celebrate Christmas.
How long is too long for reconciliation to happen? Is there a point of no return, beyond which it is simply impossible to mend a relationship that’s been broken?
It was a question on the minds of the Israelites while they lived in exile in Babylon, away from their homeland and everything they knew. Had they finally reached the tipping point? Had their ancestors built up so much ill-will with God that God finally had enough and was punishing them for the sins of history? This is what they meant when they said, “The parents eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” They were paying for the mistakes of their ancestors, and there was nothing they could do about it.
In response this parable, God uses the prophet Ezekiel to set the record straight. The Israelites are accusing God of being unfair by punishing them for the sins of their parents, but it doesn’t work like that, God says. “Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” God asks. For according to God, only the wicked themselves will die, not the righteous. If those who used to be righteous turn wicked, then they shall pay for their wickedness; that sounds fair. And indeed, if the wicked regret their wickedness and turn back to God, then they will not die, for they have turned back to God and away from the wicked path.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder if we assume too much if we declare God fair because of this. “Is my way unfair?” asks God, and I think the answer may be, Yes, it is unfair.
It’s unfair because the wicked could live their whole lives wickedly, and at the end turn back to God, and it doesn’t matter how wicked they were before. How is that fair? How is that justice? It sounds like restorative justice, something I talked about last week and the week before, but are we convinced that restorative justice is fair? “Is my way unfair?” asks God?
Is it fair that the son who disrespects his father in Jesus’s parable gets to be the good guy just because he eventually goes and does what his father asks? Is it fair that the Pharisees, the Chief Priests, the elders of the people, who lived their entire lives devoted to the temple and to the teachings of Moses and the Law and serving God—is it fair that they are regarded so poorly by Jesus? Is it fair that Jesus puts tax collectors—people who make a living by cheating their own people out of money—and prostitutes—people who make a living by having sex with other people—are counted higher in Jesus’s eyes than good, hard-working, noble people?
What about this is fair? What about this is right? There should be a point past which reconciliation is simply not possible. Like when family members slam each other on Facebook so much that they get blocked. Like when family members walk out of our lives with no intention of returning. Like when politicians betray our trust. Like when people go to jail for assault and battery, manslaughter, murder, rape.
“Is my way unfair?” asks God? Yes! Yes, God, your way is unfair! Your way is too generous, too loving, too caring, too forgiving, too lenient, too reconciling! How can you call your way fair?!
And the short answer is, we can’t. We can’t call God’s way fair. Fairness dictates that at a certain point, there’s simply nothing one can do to repair the damage they’ve done. There’s no turning back. And yet, that point doesn’t seem to exist for God.
Because as God tells the Israelites, “When the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die…. For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD.”
And again, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him.” Those ugly, no good, filthy people of society, believed. They had faith.
It is human nature to believe that relationships can be broken so badly that they can’t be fixed. And maybe, when it comes to our own relationships, there is. I don’t know. I like to think, and hope, that even our flawed human relationships are never so badly broken that they cannot ever be salvaged. Maybe I’m naive. Maybe I just hope for some fun-loving family members back.
But of this I am certain; when it comes to God, there is no such thing as a hopeless relationship. There is no such thing as a point of no return. There is no such thing as too much wickedness and sin for the relationship between humanity, creation, and God to be restored. The power of God to mend that which is broken and heal that which is hurt goes far and above what we ourselves could possible imagine. It is so very unfair. And thanks be to God.
And just maybe, as I said a few weeks ago, just maybe, that’s all the power we need to mend a few of our own relationships too.