Preaching Jubilee to the Captives: Week 9

sins of fathersResource Materials for Preachers on Topics Related to Mass Incarceration


The title we have given to these materials is meant to trip readers up ever so slightly. The premise most preachers take for granted is that they will preach about the evil of mass incarceration to their congregation, and it goes without saying that in most cases the congregants won’t be physically restricted. Most preachers do not preach to “captives” in that sense. Yet the assumption made here is that many of the sincere believers who come to church regularly are nevertheless held captive to some degree to ideas about crime and “criminals” that are part of this culture’s dominant narrative. That narrative insists that we lock a lot of people up in the United States because we have a lot of bad people here. And further, that locking them up has made us significantly safer over the past 40 years.

To use a word that our 16th president used most appropriately in 1862, we must “disenthrall” ourselves in relation to this narrative. White people in particular must look squarely at the hard-to-miss racial dimension within the narrative. And all of us must seriously interrogate the part of us that is content with a system in which we respond to violence and threat with yet more violence and threat: a way of engaging others that is about as far removed from the Jesus way as can be imagined. We must, in theologian Walter Brueggemann’s words, “emancipate our imaginations” in order to participate in the larger emancipatory project.

For each of the 10 preaching texts given here — one a week for 10 weeks in all — we provide some of the biblical context first. Then we invite the preacher to ponder a set of questions. And finally we suggest some possible homiletic directions.

There is no doubt that some of the messages proposed here will be hard for congregants to hear and thus hard as well for preachers to preach. We urge our colleagues in pulpit ministry to pray earnestly for their personal strength and courage, even as we pray earnestly for God to bless and sustain the prophets whom these difficult times require.

Past texts in this series:

Upcoming text:

  • Hosea 6:6/Isaiah 58:6-9 – The “Worship” That Pleases God

Please note that the 10 preaching texts have been developed for use in Christian pulpits. Materials relevant to other faith traditions will be forthcoming.

IX. Jeremiah 31:29/Ezekiel 18:2 – No Multi-Generational Curse

The days are surely coming, says the Lord…

The biblical literature that was produced during the Babylonian exile is loved for being immensely life-giving and energizing through all of the lyrical ways in which it proclaims an end to oppression and a return to just community for those who will be delivered.

The enduring notion that the Old and New testaments reflect very different perspectives, even very different underlying spirits, misses the point that there really is one consistent testament animating all 66 books. It is a unifying testament to God’s surpassing and inclusive love for all. Sadly, the old notion that the Old Testament is all about “law” whereas the New Testament is all about “grace” has both been reinforced by and has reinforced poisonous anti-Jewish sentiment among many Christians for centuries. This notion has fueled the still-widespread belief that Jesus understood his mission to be centered on replacing God’s old covenant with Israel with an entirely different kind of covenant. In fact, Jesus constantly renews our attention to the existing grace-infused richness that is to be found within the Hebrew Scriptures; he feels no need to replace anything; he wishes only to revivify the ancient testimony to God’s surpassing tenderness.

In relation to our earlier treatment of key New Testament texts, we regret that so many of these texts appear to pit Jesus against the Pharisees—themselves major interpreters of Torah during the Second Temple period, which stretched from 530 BCE to 70 CE, who were also the precursors to Rabbinic Judaism. Jesus may or may not have crossed paths with some actual Pharisees during his ministry. Most likely he did, but not to the extent we imagine. What we know for sure, however, is that by the time the gospels were composed—i.e., between 40 and 70 years after the death of Jesus—the early Christian communities had begun to turn against any Jews who were unwilling to accept Jesus as the Messiah. This rising anti-Judaism inflects and infects many New Testament texts, especially John’s Gospel. But it need not and should not poison our own contemporary understanding that God’s “gracious good will” (Calvin) is as fully evident within the Hebrew Scriptures as it is in any New Testament text.

The parallel texts in Jeremiah 31:29 and Ezekiel 18:2 reflect a view of God’s gracious good will, inasmuch as these exilic prophets, in a manner very much like that of Jesus, challenge old and outworn assumptions about punishment for wrongdoing extending across generations. Recalling that many of those suffering in exile assumed that they suffered for the infidelity and covenant-breaking behavior of their ancestors, this teaching must have been received with huge relief and hope for the future.

In Jeremiah, the prophet writes that in the time of restoration people will no longer cite the old proverb, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Rather, no individual human being will suffer any punishment for the sins of someone else. Only their own teeth will be left to grind away if they should happen to mess up. Ezekiel, whose distinctive style very often involves the use of rhetorical questions, asks “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?’” He then devotes the remainder of chapter 18 to explicating what God’s justice is actually like. The son of a grave sinner who himself lives a righteous life “shall surely live.” Moreover, the wicked person who sincerely repents shall also live: “‘Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?’” (v. 23) What we might call this “sound and sane justice” chapter concludes on the same redemptive note: “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live.”

Questions for the Preacher’s Meditation and Preparation

  • Am I personally in agreement with the idea that Jesus builds on the testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures rather than repudiating that testimony and bringing an entirely new message? In other words, to what extent do I believe that the “grace” message of the New Testament marks a significant change from the “law and judgment” message of the Old Testament?
  • Can I see clearly how our current criminal justice system does, in fact, inflict the burden of the “sins of the fathers” on multiple generations of family members? Do I see how spouses and children are also terribly victimized by the mass incarceration system (e.g., today 1 in 7 African-America children has an incarcerated parent)? And that this multigenerational punishment is especially acute in relation to ICE’s immigrant detention and deportation practices?
  • In Aesop’s fable, a fox who can’t reach a bunch of grapes declares them to be sour. That is the origin of the English expression “sour grapes.” Do I understand that my congregants will be confused unless I clarify that this kind of sour grapes is not what Jeremiah and Ezekiel refer to?

Possible Homiletic Directions

  • Make this more of an “information” sermon about the intergenerational damage being done by mass incarceration. Maybe bring in family members of incarcerated persons to reinforce this.
  • Also introduce information about the ICE detentions and deportations that destroy family life.
  • Point your sermon in the direction of Ezekiel 18’s overall message that God does not desire the death of any single person: that what God wants is repentance, rehabilitation, and restoration.
  • Make this a sermon about the death penalty in relation to God’s preference for life.
About Peter Laarman

Rev. Peter Laarman serves on the Justice Not Jails steering committee. He formerly directed Progressive Christians Uniting, the LA-based network of activist individuals and congregations that first launched Justice Not Jails in 2012 as a multifaith initiative. He served as the senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for ministry.