In Ezekiel 18 God refutes the unjust idea of the Jews that children and parents should be punished each for the other’s sins, so that innocent children would be put to death (for example) if their parents deserve death for some crime. This is manifestly unjust (and, by the way, upends the Reformed folks’ notion of original sin…but I digress): God insists that each of us dies for our own sins, or lives because of our righteousness. Guilt and innocence are non-transferable. This is an interesting topic on its own but I am more interested today in how God describes the behavior of the righteous, and in one particular aspect of that. The description is repeated once or twice; here is one presentation of it:
if a man is upright, his actions law-abiding and upright, and he does not eat on the mountains or raise his eyes to the foul idols of the House of Israel, … oppresses no one, returns the pledge on a debt, does not rob, gives his own food to the hungry, his clothes to those who lack clothing, does not lend for profit, does not charge interest, abstains from evil, gives honest judgement between one person and another, keeps my laws and sincerely respects my judgements-someone like this is truly upright and will live-declares the Lord Yahweh. (Ezekiel 18:5-9, NJB; emphasis added)
As is clear here (and in far too many other parts of the Bible to count, frankly) an important part of what makes me a righteous man or not is not just my attitudes but my actions with respect to the poor and oppressed. In other words I cannot navel gaze at my personal behavior and think that my personal piety is good enough, or pat myself on the back because I said an extra prayer this morning. Or whatever. There is more at stake. I cannot, just as St. James admonished us, get away with a wish for the good of the poor. As the prophet says, I must do something. Part of being counted righteous by God will involve my treatment of the poor. The common good is fundamental.