Ezek. 18:1-4, 25-32; Ps. 25:1-14; Phil. 2:1-13; Math. 21: 28-32
When I was a young boy back in the 1960's, my mother, sister, and I moved into an apartment in a beautiful old house in Danbury, Connecticut. Once one of the stately homes flanking White Street - in it’s hey day, the high rent district of town - the house, like a grande dame holding onto her former beauty, still was adorned with many elegant jewels of her youth, despite three of her four stories having been sub-divided into apartments.
Some of those jewels were oak trim with detailed carvings, a sweeping staircase in an entry foyer that lead to our apartment, hardwood floors, huge bay windows with leaded stained glass accents, 13 foot ceilings, and an enormous front porch with a rounded end that had a turret on top. I loved this house.
Another wonderful feature of this house was that it had numerous old gardens, and landscaping, that included a grape arbor. As a kid I used to pick clusters of the unripened grapes to eat. They were very sour. I know literally what it means when the prophet Ezekiel speaks of eating sour grapes, and having one’s teeth set on edge!
Near the grape arbor was a huge wooden door that lead to a wine cellar. Every fall our landlord Mr. Corvino, who had immigrated from Italy years earlier, would purchase dozens of flats of grapes from California and make wine. While the grapes produced on the arbor vines were nice for snacking, (when they were ripe) they were not wine quality.
Inside the wine cellar were two rooms - the first featured a huge, manual, wooden corkscrew press for extracting the juice from the grapes. (No bare-footed Lucy and Ethel standing in a wooden tub here!) The second room, dark and slightly musty, held racks filled with the bottles of previous years vintages.
Making wine is not a pleasant business. It’s messy and it’s smelly - the air filled with a mixture of mustiness, vinegar and cloying sweetness. Plus, tubs of crushed grapes sitting in their own juice are the consistency of slurry. Everything it comes into contact with becomes stained. Then there’s the filtering, bottling and corking. It’s a lot of work to make wine. And the possibility of ending up with a lot of vinegar by making an error is always present. But Mr. Corvino diligently made his wine, and then lovingly tended to the bottles, turning them periodically, making sure the corks were dry, until years later they became a lovely table wine. This wine graced his table each Sunday afternoon for a huge family dinner. His wine added immeasurably to this festive weekly meal and family gathering, and it made, as the scripture says, hearts glad!
What made the wine good? The grapes? The conditions in the cellar? Those matter, but the key factor was that Mr. Corvino took personal responsibility for ensuring that the grapes, and subsequent messy slurry, were transformed into a lovely wine. Without that personal responsibility -his care and attentiveness - the endeavor would have failed.
All three of our scripture lessons today speak to the issue of personal responsibility.
In the gospel we hear the parable of two sons. Both are asked by their father to go and work in the vineyard. One says, Sure Dad, I’ll go, but then never went, instead kicking back in his room and listening to his iPod. The other son told his father No, he would rather do other things than work. Maybe he had a date at Starbucks. But this son thought better of his decision not to help out his Dad with the labor that supported their family. So changing his mind, he goes out and works picking the grape harvest. This son assumes personal responsibility for himself, and his obligations to his Dad and family.
In the letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us, “Let each of you look not only to his own interest, but also to the interest of others.” Have the same mind as Jesus Christ. Who even though he was God, did not take advantage of that status, but emptied himself, became human and humbled himself, and became obedient to the task set before him - the salvation of humanity- even to death on a cross . Pretty much the ultimate act of personal responsibility in the history of the world.
And in Ezekiel, the prophet directly addresses the issue of personal responsibility. He challenges earlier Hebrew understanding that God punished not only an individual for their sins, but their descendants suffered the consequences of that sin as well . . . even to the third and fourth generations. Hence the proverb: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” (Ezek. 18:2) Instead, Ezekiel proclaimed that responsibility for sin was personal, and that each person bore the full consequences for their own behavior. “Therefore I will judge . . . every one according to his way, says the Lord, God.” (Ezek. 18:30) Each person would be judged on the basis of his or her own life: personal responsibility.
God desires each and everyone of us to be personally responsible for our own actions. Through prophets and parables, and in the witness of Jesus’ life this message is very clear. But equally important is that God does not punish future generations for our sins. We must answer for those sins ourselves, and ultimately to God.
But while God does not punish those who come after us for the wrongs we have done, we are not as compassionate, or as accountable as God desires. We do not assume the personal responsibility that God asks of us. We often do make future generations pay the consequences for our transgressions - our sinful behavior.
We will certainly set the teeth of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren on edge, with our uncontrolled spending, and soaring national debt - currently over seven trillion dollars - that is being passed on to them. Our children will be eat sour grapes indeed, without this generation making financial sacrifices, and demanding a fair and just system of taxation to support and pay for our spending.
We potentially set our children’s teeth on edge in very personal ways as well. In the language of the therapeutic world, this is called family systems, where behavior patterns inherent in the life of a family- as well as genetic predispositions - get passed down by one generation to another. And what gets passed down can be either good or bad - can be either beneficial or detrimental. Included in the later behaviors would be issues of family violence, sexual abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, prejudice and intolerance - all sins that people can pass onto their children, who then often suffer the consequences of these behaviors, by repeating these sins themselves in own their lives, thereby passing them on to their children. Unaddressed, negative family systems become an endless cycle of sin . . . of teeth set on edge.
Studying family systems and peoples medical histories can also reveal genetic predispositions for certain illnesses, like heart disease. While disease is not sin, studying this aspect of family history can help people engage in preventative behavior to mitigate the impact of this inherited issue. What does stray to sin is knowing of the predisposition and then ignoring it.
By studying my own family systems, I am aware that through my maternal line there is a predisposition for heart disease. And through my paternal line, I have come to understand that there is a strong indication of a predisposition toward alcohol abuse. Knowing this allows me to be proactive by making life-style choices. Exercise, diet, and an awareness of what role I allow alcohol to play in my life, allow me to take personal responsibility for not only my teeth getting set on edge, but for someone I might be a role model for as well.
God calls us to personal responsibility in all of life. Are you assuming personal responsibility for your behavior? Where are you failing to do this in your life? How is your personal behavior setting up future generations to eat sour grapes? Are you the son who says, Yes, sure I’ll do that, and then quickly ignores his commitment, abdicating his personal responsibility to his own detriment, and to that of others?
Or are you the son who says, No dad, I have better things to do, but then has a personal epiphany and thinks better of it, assuming responsibility for your behavior and there by for others as well?
It’s like Mr. Corvino’s wine making. Without our being personally responsible, our lives will be a messy slurry, that smells and will turn to vinegar. But, if we are attentive and loving, assuming personal responsible for our behavior, our lives will become good wine that gladdens the heart.
We have a choice. But remember this as you reflect. When Jesus performed his first miracle, saving the day for the wedding party in Cana, the scripture tells us he turned that water into good wine.