I have stolen the title of today’s reflection on Ezekiel 33 from the musical horror show, “Sweeny Todd,” by Stephen Sondheim. I happen to believe that that show is the finest musical written in the past half-century, but you are not reading this for my musical critique. A character in the musical, who horribly turns out not to be the beggar she appears to be at the beginning, but in fact is Sweeny’s wife whom he thought to be dead, utters this fateful cry in the first act. In typically monstrous fashion in such plays, Sweeny himself murders her at the end. Her cry of “Mischief” becomes in the course of the show merely a tiny portion of the truths to be revealed.
That may appear to be an odd analogy to my concerns about Ez.33, but I insist that the afterlife of this text has been nothing short of mischief for too many believers over the centuries. Ezekiel, who has more than once been likened to a slightly mad prophet, or at least his author has been, suggests in this text that YHWH has made him “a sentinel for the house of Israel” (Ez.33:7). The word translated “sentinel” in NRSV is traditionally read as “watchman.” The role of the watchman/sentinel is to warn the wicked of their impending doom at the hands of the enraged YHWH. If the sentinel does not warn the wicked of their fate, then the sentinel him/herself will not only not prevent the demise of the wicked but will incur bloodguilt due to the refusal to warn them. In other words, the role of the watchman is to warn, warn, warn! She must always be crying out that doom is near, that wickedness will be punished, that evil will not be forgotten by a vengeful God.
Hence, the street corner preacher, worn Bible is hand, haranguing indifferent passersby that God sees, knows, and disapproves of behaviors the preacher terms unacceptable! You fill in the blank: sexual “deviance,” excess alcohol, lack of piety, poor prayer practices, etc. Though no one pays a whit of attention to the slightly wacky figure, throat raw with shouting, eyes bulging with rapture, he (usually a he) has in his own mind done what he must do to save even one lost soul. He has warned them; he has played the role of sentinel. “But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.” All the sentinel must do is to preach against the perceived evils; if the wicked do not agree, that is their problem. The sentinel will find a place with God, but the wicked will spend eternity in an unairconditioned nightmare.
“Mischief, mischief!” Absolutely nothing good can arise from this scenario. The idea confirms a believer in his/her belief, no matter how foolish and uninformed that belief may be. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, can rail against LGBTQ persons, quoting the Bible as if it supports his bigotry, and can do so with a broad smile, feeling that he has played the role of sentinel for God, has warned the “sinners” of their evil ways, and has thus assured his place
in the heavenly realms with God. If his targets do not change their wicked ways, it is not his problem; he is saved and free, while they are doomed and damned. And the fact that others disagree forcefully with his ideas is “proof” to the sentinel that he is right. “Mischief, mischief!”
It is extremely difficult to determine what was in the mind of the author of Ezekiel who inscribed those fateful words. Because in another part of the long book, he says that only those who themselves have done evil will be accountable for that evil, and will not be judged evil on account of the actions of their forebears, it seems clear that there has been much discussion at the time about exactly who is responsible for evil in the world. The old adage, “The fathers have eaten bad grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” the author finds no longer valid (Ez.18:2). “It is only the person who sins who will die,” he proclaims, suggesting that others were saying something different, claiming that ancestor sin may be responsible for contemporary wrongdoing. But how this discussion affects our text is not so clear. The sentinel’s role remains to warn sinners of their doom, and if they do not so warn them, they too are guilty of a grievous wrong act.
Perhaps the worst mischief of this notion of the sentinel comes in its simplistic idea of evil itself. What is evil and what is not cannot be reduced to one person’s conception. Though Jeffress asserts that all LGBTQ people are sinners, that is by no means a universal belief; I, for one, do not believe it, and I count myself a biblical Christian. For all of Jeffress’ assertions, for all his claims to be a sentinel for God, his statements can be, and have been, challenged by others. Self-proclaimed sentinels are not above challenge; their statements are not beyond debate. In short, Ezekiel’s definition of evil, having much to do with idolatry and injustice, is far different from modern definitions.
This is a dangerous text, and has served many over the centuries as a license to proclaim evil. Too often, that proclamation is itself evil, consigning whole groups of people to darkness and despair. “Mischief, mischief,” cries Mrs. Todd, and her cry has been unfortunately echoed by latter day prophets whose claim to be sentinels for God are nothing but smokescreens for bigotry and intolerance.