“The sins of the father…”

Do you know the movie, “Hell or High Water”? It was up for an Oscar last year but wasn’t seen by many. The basic premise is that a poor Texas family is going to lose their land to the bank through foreclosure unless they come up with $40,000 fast. Two brothers start robbing branches of the bank to get the money. There is a poignant scene in which the one brother says that “poverty is like a disease.” He talks about how it is passed down through the generations like some hereditary illness but that he is determined to make sure it isn’t passed down to his sons.

One of the fall lectionary readings is from Ezekiel and in it a proverb is quoted, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” It is similar to the biblical line, “The sins of the father shall be visited upon the son to the third and fourth generation.” That biblical notion has long bothered many Christians for its unfairness. It is just wrong to be punished for the actions of another. But I’ve always thought of it more in terms of the “Hell or High Water” quote, it is descriptive of a truth rather than a punishment. The past affects the present, patterns laid down are hard to break, sins are like a hereditary disease. It takes a lot of effort to choose a new direction. Ezekiel urges his people to get “a new heart and a new spirit”, to break with the past and choose life.

This passage from Ezekiel is great because he is clearly challenging a well-grounded piece of bliblical wisdom as well. The notion that the sins of the father are visited upon the son is cited in Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the Psalms. In taking it on Ezekiel is clearly demonstrating that the bible is not a book to be quoted simplistically. It is not a collection of moral certainties or truths. The bible is a complex conversation about the holy and it invites the reader into the debate. Sometimes it is good to acknowledge how the past has shaped us and sometimes we need to overcome the past. We pray for the wisdom of the spirit to discern which is right in our moment in time.

Spoiler alert if you plan to see the movie stop reading… In Hell or High Water the money is raised, the bank is thwarted and there is a sense that the cycle of poverty may be broken for one family. But the price paid to change the pattern is very high; good people die. Sometimes we make it seem like choosing a new direction is easy when it is actually very difficult, even painful. But at some point you can’t be held hostage by the past, you must get a new heart, a new spirit and choose life.

The passage from Ezekiel ends with these words from God, “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone. Turn, then, and live.” Amen.