In today’s first reading, God commissions the prophet Ezekiel to act like a “watchman,” the ancient equivalent of a surveillance officer in the modern military. (Ez. 33:7) The watchman described in this reading would have been assigned to a watch tower along the border of an ancient kingdom, Judea in this case. The watchman’s task was to issue a warning to the kingdom’s general officers if an enemy army was observed approaching the kingdom’s borders.
In this passage from the book of Ezekiel, God commands the prophet to keep watch for God’s call to repentance and to communicate that call to those who behave in wicked ways. As in the case of a kingdom’s watchman, there are also consequences for the life of the prophet. If the prophet fails to announce the call to repentance from God, the prophet will share in the punishment meted out to sinners. (Ez. 33:8) If, on the other hand, the prophet speaks God’s Word, but the guilty do not repent, the prophet will be spared retribution. (Ez. 33:9)
Ezekiel served as prophet to the exiles returned from captivity in Babylon. Obviously, things didn’t go according to plan. This prophecy about Ezekiel’s vocation is clear evidence that many of the returned exiles failed to live faithful lives. The military “watchman” was an apt description of the prophetic vocation: he was responsible to warn the people of the impending danger of incurring God’s wrath.
Although the “watchman” metaphor is a description of the responsibilities of a religious leader, it can also be applied to the life of every believer. These few verses from the book of Ezekiel can be understood as wise advice about how to live a virtuous life in a society that is insufficiently virtuous.
If one attempts to live a faithful and virtuous life, there are challenges one must face in addition to the challenge of appropriating faith and virtue. Those most faithful can become discouraged by the lack of faith in the general population. Those most virtuous can fall into the escapism of ignoring injustice in the world. Avoiding these two errors of discouragement and denial adds to the already significant burden of cultivating faith and virtue in one’s life.
The practical applications of this command from God are numerous. Everyone has had the experience of witnessing a family member, friend, or neighbor who chooses to allow her or his life to descend into faithlessness and disorder. Everyone has the experience of lamenting the senseless injustices perpetrated on the poor and the powerless. In the face of these disappointments, it’s easy to become discouraged or to take refuge in denial. God’s command to Ezekiel offers help in these uncomfortable situations. God commands each person to know the truth and to live the truth. Those who do so are guaranteed God’s mercy. Those who fail to do so are guaranteed the consequences of a sinful life. Those who fail to make a public commitment to living faithfully and virtuously are guaranteed to share in the fate of sinners, but those who proclaim the truth have fulfilled both their public and personal responsibilities.
Some Scripture commentators have opined that this passage in Ezekiel represents a compromise made necessary by the lack of social cohesiveness among the returned exiles. This opinion says that Ezekiel was commanded to speak to individual sinners because there was no longer a communal identity shared by the whole People. I think that this interpretation of God’s command to Ezekiel misses the mark. I think that it is rather the case that this command to Ezekiel is a corrective to the tendency to take refuge in the crowd. Both discouragement and denial are easier to maintain when one has someone or something to blame for the lamentable state of the world. This passage of Ezekiel is a reminder that there is no hiding from one’s responsibilities, whether personal and social; individuals bear as much responsibility as does the whole of society.
What can one do about the family member or loved one who persists in faithless or immoral behavior? What can one do about the failings of society, government, the Church, acquaintances, or strangers? What are one’s obligations to those who choose to reject righteous living? God’s vocational call to Ezekiel says that the full extent of what can and ought to be done is to live a righteous life and to advocate publicly for righteous living; doing this fulfills God’s will.
Fretting about the failings of others or complaining about the imperfections of the world are the result of the refusal to accept responsibility for one’s life, and the rejection of one’s responsibilities puts one squarely in the company of the wicked. On the other hand, those who live according to God’s commandments and teach others to do so have done everything possible, and everything necessary, to build a just and peaceful world.