“Thus says the Lord: You say, ‘The Lord’s way is not fair!’ Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair? When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die. But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed, he shall surely love, he shall not die” (Ezekiel 18:25-28).
This was a very new and important message for the house of Israel when Ezekiel proclaimed it. It was an old idea that if some terrible misfortune happened to someone, it was believed that it was because of the sins of that person’s parents, passed on from one generation to the next, as if by genetics. This chapter of Ezekiel rejects that idea. Rather, it emphasizes individual responsibility and accountability for one’s own decisions, words, and deeds. This message is still as important for us today as it was for the people of Ezekiel’s time.
How often have we heard ourselves or others say, “That’s not fair!” when we were caught in the consequences of some bad decision or action and are suddenly confronted with the painful reality of a reprimanded or a just punishment for it? Indeed, how many times have we been tempted to blame others for our actions, or even to blame God? We understand what is going on within us when we do this. We are trying to separate ourselves from the natural consequences of our actions or words. Some even get caught up in the moral fallacy that is so common today, thinking that they can do whatever they want, whenever they want to, because they are “free.” This is false thinking. It only recognizes half of the truth. It is a denial of reality, for it does not recognize the corresponding, personal responsibility that goes with that freedom. Just as it is true in physics that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, moral/immoral/amoral acts have consequences that follow naturally from them. And each individual is responsible and accountable for each and every one of those consequences. It is a fact of reality that freedom without responsibility is the cause of much evil and much suffering.
God’s ways are perfectly true and good. To recognize this is to recognize one’s responsibility to live in accord with them. If we go against God’s ways, either in ignorance, or out of rebellion, there are consequences that naturally follow. If one knows the ways of God and willfully turns away from them, the consequence, as we see here in Ezekiel, is death. That “death” may, or may not be, an immediate physical death, but if that person remains unrepentant, it is certain death to his or her immortal soul. Ezekiel, inspired by the Holy Spirit, tells us, “But if he turns away from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed.” This is a recognition of God’s mercy. If we have gone astray, but recognize it, feel sorrow for it, and turn back to God, his mercy toward us will be immediate and complete. God made us absolutely free. He also gave us intellect and will. Our intellects can come to know the good and just ways of God through prayer, the study of scripture, and the teachings of the Church. With our free wills, we can willingly and freely choose to humbly submit to God’s ways and live responsibly in accord with them, or we can willfully turn away from them. If we choose the latter, if we misuse his gifts of intellect and free will, and refuse to repent of this, it is not God who is being unfair, it is we who are being unfair. It is our choice alone, no one else’s. And here is the truth: If we know God’s ways, and willing live in accord with them, we will surely live—forever. If we willfully turn away from what we know are God’s ways, and refuse to repent of this, we will surely die—forever. That is eminently fair.
Lord, You are the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Only in you do we live, move, and have our being. Increase in us a desire to know, to love, and to serve you more in this world so that we may be with you forever in the next. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
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