“The Children’s Teeth…”

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Matthew 21:23-32

“What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?””

So begins this little slice of the prophet Ezekiel which will be read where many of us worship this year on the first Sunday in October. Ezekiel goes on to explain that in the Reign of God this ancient wisdom would no longer hold sway. That punishment for the sins of the parents would no longer be visited upon their children. Indeed, you can see this playing out in Jesus’ parable, too, where the two sons in question are their own ‘moral agents.’ Just because they are children of the same father does not mean that the outcome will be the same simply because they carry similar genetic codes to their siblings.

Only today with some measure of dismay I would argue the point. For in the world you and I call home, this ancient wisdom still holds, if not in the legal system then in our day to day lives. In fact, I saw this come home in two different instances in the space of a couple of hours the other day.

The first was this. A parent has been accused of a horrific crime. As is often the case in such matters, our system of justice drags on and so for many months this one has been dealing with the consequences of this.  And while the children will not be held accountable, already they are paying a price even while all the while innocence is claimed.

For you see, first there was a job loss. And so far there have been $20,000 in legal bills. And then another job was obtained where the nature of the alleged crime would have no bearing, but when they learned of the situation this one was put on unpaid leave until it all sorts out.

And these are only the financial burdens which are affecting the children already.

I came to know of this situation because the two sons are active in the scout troupe at our church. While usually I am not brought in on the day-to-day decisions of the troupe, this one was different for some parents became insistent that the presence of this parent, even at fundraisers, posed a danger to their boys. And the larger organization took their side. This is hard enough, but the parent’s not being allowed to work those fundraisers means the boys’ participation in the troupe is in jeopardy.  And while we have found the means to cover the gap, by now you see what I mean, don’t you? Two teenage boys who have done nothing wrong are, in fact, paying the price for their parent’s alleged sin.

So I went from a meeting with this parent to a conversation with a young couple soon to be married and what I heard there continued to confirm what we also know so well. It matters who raised you and how. And while we may not be responsible for making actual physical reparations for wrongs done by our parents or grandparents, even if we are separated by death or distance, the memories, the scars, the ingrained habits and ways of encountering the world remain. It can take a real investment of time, energy, intention and sometimes countless hours of therapy for grown children not to continue in the ways of those who have gone before. And oh, how often it is that I hear this yearning in so many voices as they spoke of childhoods too much marked by abuse and neglect.

And oh, isn’t this even more so for children of those who are incarcerated or children who because of neglect or abuse find themselves shuttled around in the foster care

Now I know these examples may seem a bit extreme, but they make me think of all the ways this parable cited by Ezekiel holds true. About siblings who have to live down the reputations of older brothers and sisters for good or ill. About communities where identities are assumed due to one’s parentage even before true reputations have a chance to be formed. Indeed, it is a small example and while I expect this is less likely the case today, when I took the initial steps towards becoming a pastor, the first question often posed to me was whether I had pastors in the family.  At that time I did not. Perhaps the intent was not to make me feel less than my classmates, but it made me wonder about whether I would ever belong among others following this call given where I had come from. So it is so that what the prophet offers here is pure grace to children who in another time and place would have had to actually pay the price for their parents’ failures. What the prophet offers here is the opportunity to step away from a great deal of what would bind you and hold you back. And yet, I am not at all certain that you and I yet live in the world the prophet foretells. I am not at all certain that time has come.

So I am not certain just how I will preach this next week. For Ezekiel speaks of a world I do not often inhabit.

Although maybe Jesus does. For just like with Ezekiel, the grace of Jesus’ words comes home in the truth that you and I have been welcomed into a way of being which means it is ours to choose a different way. And maybe for you and I who hold some measure of power or influence in the world, perhaps it is ours to work to make the world hold at least this much grace — that those we encounter would not be burdened by things not of their doing, but be given fresh and new opportunities to find their own way.

Not that this is enough. For even as I seek to find my own way I am too often like the second son called to work in the vineyard today. My intentions are good, but my follow through too often falls short. Still, maybe the grace of this parable is that every moment of every day is a new start and that not only am I not burdened by the sins or failures of previous generations, in God’s eyes I am also not burdened by my own sins or failures from yesterday. Maybe every single moment is a chance to choose a different way. And isn’t this grace? Certainly this was true for the tax collectors and prostitutes who Jesus speaks of now. Might this also be true for you and me? Oh might this also be true?

  • I would be curious to hear your thoughts on this. Do we live in the world Ezekiel foretold or not? How is it that it is no longer so that ‘the parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge?
  • If this is not yet our world, how might you and I work at making it more and more so reflective of the time and space we inhabit together?
  • In my working may way through these passages in these last couple of days, I finally came upon grace in the words of Jesus now. For maybe it is enough that every moment of every day is an opportunity to choose a different way. What do you think? Or do you find promise elsewhere? If so where would that be?


  1. Jane Uzzell says:

    You gave me much to think about–as a retired teacher of English language learners, I fully support allowing the Dreamers to stay in the U.S. and be the good citizens they have been. That’s the most prominent parental choice greatly affecting the children that I can think of. I do what I can, but it’s not much and in Nebraska, it’s too often not enough. Praying there is a sane solution.

  2. Mike Wilson says:

    Another scouting story, not from this area: the boy was being raised by a lesbian couple; the troop leadership decided (off the record) that the boy would never get his Eagle Scout rank, and made sure he didn’t know when required merit badge clinics, etc, took place. This was contrary to national policy, but typical of people interpreting “the law” in the way that fits their pre-conceived notions.

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