Column: Jesus’ death challenged Jewish concept of Sin

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Sometimes, the sense of belonging to the group can grow so strong that it overwhelms the sense of individual responsibility.

Students in high school might identify so closely with their peers that they do nearly anything to fit in. Members of a fraternal organization also feel pressure to go along with the crowd.

Pushed to the extreme, this tendency can lead to mob violence. On the other hand, a strong sense of cohesiveness can enable a group to work together, to overcome enormous obstacles, in order to accomplish wonderful things.

Sunday’s first reading, Ez 18:25-28, points us in the opposite direction. It stresses individual responsibility, instead of relying upon the group. Virtue will result in life. Sin will result in death. But this will play out on an individual basis. Just belonging to the group will not suffice.

Ezekiel was prophesying during the time of the Exile. With their land gone, with the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed, the people of Israel had lost much of what had held them together as a nation. So, what remained to mark them as an Israelite?

It was their faith in God and their willingness to keep the commandments of God.

The experience of the Exile pushed the observance of the Law to the forefront in the minds of the people. Ezekiel builds upon that newfound emphasis in his discussion of individual responsibility. After all, it is the individual who decides either to obey, or to disobey, the law of God:

“When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity and dies, it is because of the iniquity that he has committed that he must die. But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life.”

We might note that Ezekiel’s prophecy assumes that life comes as a reward from God, while death comes as a punishment from God. This belief that misfortune in this life constitutes a punishment from God continued on into the time of Jesus. That is why Jesus was asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9:2)

Jesus answers that the man’s misfortune does not mean that either he or his parents sinned. God’s punishments and rewards may not arrive until the next life.

The disconnect between reward and virtue, punishment and sin, becomes even sharper when Jesus is crucified. Jesus, the just one, was put to death. He received a punishment he did not deserve.

The early Christians recognized that this was difficult for many to accept: “But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23).

St. Paul calls us to accept the mystery of God’s plan in faith. We must decide.

And once again, it is a matter of personal responsibility.

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