The Duty of the Faithful
One of the things we learn as we grow in our knowledge and our practice of Christianity is that we are always responsible to others at all times. We are never free from the duties of love. We learn that our faith is more than mere ideas, that those ideas have meaning only when they are actually put into practice freely and humbly in context of our daily lives. Today’s devotion deals with a topic that is difficult indeed, as it really puts a focus on our duty toward those who are doing harm to others. This, of course, carries great risk. Only faith reveals the heavenly logic involved in this admonition from God through his prophet Ezekiel.
ʺIf I say, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.ʺ (Ezekiel 33: 7-9)
When we see a phrase in the scriptures like, ‘O wicked one,’ we tend to think of those who are truly and obviously wicked. These examples are usually quite distant from us in time and in space. When we do this we turn the scripture into mythology. The message, though, is much closer to home. ‘Wickedness’ takes many forms, from the simple lie, to gossip, or character assassination, to things like fraud, libertinism, cruelty, or the very worst of human behaviors, like abuse and murder. All of these things do damage to the other, to relationships, to our duties toward the poor, the disenfranchised and, ultimately, to God. They are things that all of us are capable of doing, given the right circumstances and our own weakness at any given point in time. They can be done by those we love, or those with whom we have no relationship at all. But if we are witness to it, we are, like Ezekiel, charged with, ‘trying to warn them, to turn from their wicked ways.’ The rest is up to them. If they continue to act in ways that do harm, that is their choice and they will suffer the inevitable consequences of those choices. But if we do not comply with our duty to God and to the one who is caught up in those ‘wicked ways,’ we will be held responsible for failing to do so, indeed, for their death.
This, at the outset seems truly unreasonable. We might feel justified in asking, ‘Why should I suffer for the decisions of another?’ This kind of thinking, of course, comes from the ‘wisdom’ of the world, not that of God. Indeed, if that is all that we hear in this admonition from the Prophet Ezekiel, we have missed the theological point, which is that we are all participants in the same journey. We are all children of the same God, therefore, we have an absolute and unavoidable responsibility toward one another. God loves all of his children equally and he ask us to do the same. This is the theological fact and it has an absolute connection to the realities of society as well.
In our time, with its radical individualism and relativistic philosophies, we have been taught the exact opposite of Ezekiel’s words here. We are taught that there is no absolute right and wrong, that no one, certainly no distant God, has a right to condemn or criticize a person’s ‘personal choices.’ We are taught that we are our own gods, that we decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. In the end, such philosophies are nothing more than fanciful fictions of the individual imagination. In other words, they are the products of an ego completely untethered from all others, bearing no responsibility to anyone but the apotheosized self. Ironically, this thinking is completely unaware of its own self-contradictions. The ego rarely if ever sees its own injustices toward others, but demands that all others be just to it. The great unseen irony, of course, is that this kind of thinking is the source of all of the injustice in the world, for the other is always secondary to the self. There can be no love in this, no compassion, no mercy.
We must never lose sight of the possibility that we might be the ‘wicked one’ who must be challenged. Will we be humble enough to hear the love behind that challenge when it comes, or will we arrogantly refuse to hear it. The power of this passage is in its recognition of free will. We have a choice when we see wickedness being done to the innocent. Will we be courageous enough to lovingly challenge the other for their injustices, or not. When we are lovingly challenge by another to turn away from our ‘wicked’ ways, we have a choice to hear it and to change, or not. Each free choice has its inevitable, unavoidable consequences; good or bad.
If we see our brother or sister engaged in ‘wicked’ behaviors toward others, God wants us to warn them of the ;potential consequences of their actions, to try to turn them away from those things, not just for the sake of those they are affecting, but for the good of their own soul, their own happiness. As Christians, we know in faith that we do this because we believe that we are made in goodness, that goodness is our truest nature. We also understand that our good nature is fallen and, as a result, weak. We know this about ourselves as much as anybody else. We know that our happiness is directly connected to how well we live in accord with our truest nature. It is in believing in this natural goodness that we have the courage to ‘speak out to dissuade the wicked from his/her ways. But that is all we can do. We can not impose our will on them to turn away from those ways. We can only propose to them that there is a better way. And we can only do this in humble faith that God will help us in the effort. Why? Because God is good, and he made us in the image and likeness of that goodness.
Lord, help us as parents to guide our children away from wickedness and toward the good. If our neighbors are involved in injustices of any kind, help us to love them well enough to challenge them back to their own natural goodness. Give us the grace to be humble enough to hear your voice in those who lovingly try to turn us away from our own wickednesses. We pray this in your name, Jesus. Amen.
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