FOURTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings’
As the LORD spoke to me, the spirit entered into me
and set me on my feet,
and I heard the one who was speaking say to me:
Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites,
rebels who have rebelled against me;
they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day.
Hard of face and obstinate of heart
are they to whom I am sending you.
But you shall say to them: Thus says the LORD GOD!
And whether they heed or resist—for they are a rebellious house--
they shall know that a prophet has been among them.
The Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990), in its introduction to the Book of Ezekiel, describes the prophet as a pivotal figure in the history of Israel. Ezekiel grasped the integrity of faith in God’s covenant, pure worship, and observance of the Law, but he recognized that Israel’s life of faith would require acknowledgement of changing times and circumstances. He understands a future where the royal arrangement of Israel’s life might no longer be possible, and that the religion of Israel would (and probably would have to) set roots and live by the essence of God’s Revelation throughout the face of the earth, a reference to what would later be called the diaspora of “scattering.” As it happens, our house expert Father Lawrence Boadt (see welcome page) is the JBC’s commentator on Ezekiel, and he observes that “it is little wonder that Ezekiel is often considered the Father of Judaism” as we understand Jewish practice today.” (p. 305)
600 B.C. marked a turning point in Israel’s history. Since the kingships of Saul, David, and Solomon, four centuries of kings had governed Israel, none of whom measured up to the cultic memory of the beginnings of the dynasty. A king of Israel was not a deity, but neither was he a figurehead, either. While he exercised what we might call today statecraft, he was also bound by the Covenant Law and responsible for the quality of religious life, though the day-to-day religious leadership fell to the tribe of Levi (the Levites) and the Temple priesthood. The last of the Israelite kings worthy of the name appears to be Josiah (640-609 B.C.) and Father Boadt goes into considerable detail to explain the reforms undertaken by this remarkable king. Josiah called for (1) abolishment of foreign idols; (2) end of the cult of the stars; (3) end of worship of sun and moon; (4) termination of temple prostitution; (5) renewal of the Feast of Passover; (6) suppression of the Cult of Moloch, in which infant sacrifice was offered.
Josiah’s reforms, listed in 2 Kings, are very similar to the precepts of Deuteronomy (“second law’) and may have inspired the writing of the fifth book of the Pentateuch. But they also give us a grim picture of Israelite observance by the end of the seventh century B.C. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s biography of Ezekiel indicates that the prophet did not serve under the reign of Josiah, but later, under the reigns of Josiah’s successors who could not resist the advances of Babylon. In 597 B.C. Ezekiel, with other priests, was forcibly removed to Babylon, and several years later, after Israelite revolts, many of his compatriots joined him in what is well known as the Babylonian Captivity.
Ezekiel, as a priest, was well respected by his people, but he did not receive his call to prophesy until several years into the captivity. Sunday’s reading describes his call from God received in Babylon, making him the first Spirit-filled prophet to receive his call outside of the confines of the Israelite nation. God announces that he is “sending” Ezekiel to the Israelites—a curious phrasing since Ezekiel was already among Israelites. In this context God speaks as if he hardly knows Israel anymore; there is nothing of “my people” here. The Lord goes on to speak of the Israelites as a rebellious people, and God acknowledges that in their hardness of heart there is a very good chance they might reject Ezekiel’s preaching altogether. Nonetheless, God wants them to know that a prophet has been among them—an intimate presence of God’s spirit and truth—so that they can no longer claim that God has abandoned them.
Scholars who have worked with the Book of Ezekiel find two separate strains of thought. The first—Ezekiel’s early years—was a message that Israel’s neglect of its covenant with God was the cause of its current misery. Or, another way, you brought this on yourselves. Implied in this is the argument that no king—Josiah notwithstanding—can carry the full load of moral responsibility, a critical step toward a deeper sense of moral responsibly. As the years passed, and Ezekiel himself aged, his preaching turned toward consolation and hope. His last preaching is estimated to have occurred around 570 B.C., and he died long before King Cyrus of Persia released the Israelites to return home in 539 B.C.
This reading is paired with the Gospel narrative of Mark 6 in which the preaching and good works of Jesus in his home town are questioned and rejected by his presumed fellow neighbors in faith. One can imagine a literary parallel between the reception afforded Ezekiel when he tells his people that their misery is their own doing, and Jesus’ acting in the role of herald of the new kingdom to people who presumed they knew him. Interestingly, in Luke’s telling of Mark’s account here, he describes how the people tried to kill Jesus. A prophet is not without honor except…etc.