Ezekiel’s teaching in today’s first reading remains somewhat theoretical until it is understood in the context of Jesus’ parable of the two sons (Mt 21:28-32).
Ezekiel’s “wicked man” who “has turned away from all the sins which he committed” (Ez 18:27-28) is the first son in Jesus’ parable, whose disobedience turned into an act of love (working in the vineyard for his father and family members) after he “changed his mind” (Mt 21:30). He is compared to tax collectors and prostitutes – considered sinners in Jesus’ time – whose repentance, as shown in their willingness to follow John the Baptist, brings them the grace of “entering the kingdom of God before [the chief priests and elders]” (Mt. 21:31).
The virtuous man who “turns away from virtue to commit iniquity” in Ezekiel’s exhortation (Ez 18:26), on the other hand, is the second son in Jesus’ parable, who is originally obedient to the father but eventually chooses not to do good work (Mt. 21:30). He represents the chief priests and elders, who heard John the Baptist’s call for repentance but “did not later change [their] minds and believe him” (Mt. 21:32). The punishment for such hardness of heart is severe: death according to Ezekiel (Ez. 18:26) and deemed worse than the tax collectors and prostitutes in Jesus’ parable (Mt. 21:31).
It’s hard to miss the common thread connecting Ezekiel’s message and Jesus’ parable - repentance. What is needed is a change of heart – a “turning from the wickedness” in Ezekiel’s word (Ez 18:27), or the first son’s change of mind to rescind his previous decision to disobey his father in Jesus’ parable (Mt 21:29). It’s a complete backtracking just as one is about to fall off the cliff; the result of a beautiful conversion, made possible not by human efforts but by God’s mercies, achieved not because one works hard but because his heart is touched and transformed by the Holy Spirit.
“Remember your mercies, O Lord.” Together we chant in the Responsorial Psalm to drive home this very important message.
The beauty of the Christian faith is that justification is never a legalistic endeavor: it’s not about relying on our own effort to “right a wrong”, even if it’s important to do so; it’s not about “an eye for an eye”, even though it seems fair. The flip side of this legalistic mindset is a misguided self-sufficiency, or arrogance, even narcissism: I fix my own mistake; I do good work and I deserve the recognition; I…I…I... Justification is not from the internal “I”, it’s from the external “He”; justification is not about ability, it’s about humility; justification is not a human pursuit, it’s divine mercy.
“Remember your mercies, O Lord. Good and upright is the LORD; thus he shows sinners the way. He guides the humble to justice, and teaches the humble his way“ (Psalm 25:6, 8-9).
Note: The author follows the NAB and NRSV in interpreting today’s gospel reading.