27th September 2020

IF I tap the word ‘love’ into my mobile phone, it will helpfully (it thinks) come up with a selection of heart symbols for me  to choose from. And if I don’t like any of them, it has others available.
The technology may be comparatively recent, but there’s nothing new about the symbol. For decades, we’ve been accustomed to signs in car rear windows or T-shirts proclaiming ‘I (red heart) …’, whatever it may be. In schooldays, I seem to remember we might deface the inside cover of another boy’s exercise book by drawing a heart pierced by an arrow, accompanied by his initials and those of a girl with whom we thought he was smitten. Down the centuries, lovers have announced their love to the world with similar carvings on trees. And even today, those foolish enough to disfigure their bodies with tattoos may do so with a heart and the name of their current beloved. Which can cause some embarrassment when they transfer their affections elsewhere, unless they manage to fall in love with another of the same name.
But in Hebrew thought (and, therefore, in the Bible), the heart is used in a much wider sense, not just the seat of the emotions, but the whole of a person’s disposition, of mind, spirit and will. We encounter that in today’s first reading.
The story of Jonah, which we heard last week, was written as a corrective to the idea that God’s mercy was reserved for the Jews. The book tells of his compassion and forgiveness being extended to the Jews’ hated enemy, Assyria.
Today we hear Ezekiel giving a further new insight into God’s attitude to sin. When we (very rarely) use the Ten Commandments at this service nowadays, we leave out the part of the second commandment (forbidding idolatry), which describes God as ‘a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generation’ (Exodus 20.5). This impressed itself so much upon people’s consciousness that it gave rise to a proverb: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’. Jeremiah had already repudiated this: ‘[This] will no longer be said   … [Instead], he who eats the sour grapes will find his own teeth set on edge (Jeremiah 31.29,30). But it is Ezekiel who is most emphatic in challenging the saying. He was addressing those who had suffered defeat and subsequent exile at the hands of the Babylonians. They blamed the sins of their forefathers for their present suffering. But the prophet rejects this: ‘As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel … It is the person who sins that shall die’ (Ezekiel 18.3,4). Our relationship with God is a personal one: each of us is answerable for his/her own actions. We can change – for better, or for worse: ‘When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, he shall die for it … when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed .. he shall surely live, he shall not die’ (Ezekiel 18.26-28).
This teaching is echoed in today’s gospel (Matthew 21.23-32). Jesus tells a story of two sons, both told by their father to go and work in his vineyard. One says, politely, ‘I go, sir,’ but doesn’t. The other retorts rudely, ‘I won’t’, but afterwards thinks better of it and goes. ‘Which of them,’ Jesus asks the religious leaders who have challenged his authority – ‘Which of them did his father’s will?’ They cannot evade the obvious answer: The one who had a change of heart and went. Jesus drives the point home. Those religious leaders, professedly righteous, had heard John the Baptist’s call to repentance, but ignored it. Those they dismissed as sinners, the avaricious tax collectors and the prostitutes, also heard John’s message, and they repented.
Which of them did the will of their heavenly Father? Of course, the story and the question challenges us to examine the genuineness of our professed faith, as reflected in our conduct.
Ezekiel emphasises God’s justice: ‘It is the person who sins that will die; a son will not bear responsibility for his father’s guilt, nor a father for his son’s’ (Ezekiel 18.20). But he emphasises also the possibility of repentance, and his last word in this chapter has God asking – plaintively, it sounds – ‘Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God; so turn, and live.’
God’s pleasure: it is the last word in today’s reading from Philippians as well (Philippians 2.13). God’s pleasure is not our spiritual death, but our repentance. That requires action from us: ‘Turn and live’, is God’s word through the prophet.’ ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,’ urges St Paul.
The son in the gospel story had a change of heart. ‘Get yourselves a new heart,’ commands God in Ezekiel. But as St Paul points out that our salvation is only possible because ‘God is at work in [us]’ (Philippians 2.13), so the Old Testament psalmist is clear that a new heart can only come from God: ‘Make me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ (Psalm 51.10). The Church makes that prayer twice every day, at Morning and Evening Prayer (Prayer Book pp 399 and 408). We would do well to include it in our private prayers, too.
And clearly, I should be less interested in the heart symbols on my phone, and more in the new heart I urgently need, which is God’s will for me  – indeed, his pleasure – and his merciful, loving gift.