September 17, 2005

Sins of the Parents

My great-great-great grandfather was a no-good, dirty rotten pig stealer. Or at least, someone in his family was, or was accused of being. I guess that’s something I and Stanley Yelnats (from Louis Sachar’s book Holes) have in common. In my great-great-great grandfather’s case, the alleged theft led the Hatfields (my great-great-great grandfather’s family) into an infamous feud with a family across the river, the McCoys.

My great-great grandfather (I’ve been told) spent the second half of his life with a bullet in his leg, put there by one of the McCoys. My knowledge of family history isn’t what I wish it was (my youngest sister, who lives in my grandparents’ old house, has better knowledge of our family tree), but I think he was probably the second generation of that feud. The bitterness, I’m sure, carried on even further, to the third generation, that of my great-grandparents.

Whenever I read that part of the scripture where God appears to Moses, I always stop at the part where God is described as punishing the sins of the people to the third and fourth generation. It always seemed to me that that was rather severe. After all, what did those third and fourth generation children do?

Today, Saturday, September 17, I witnessed once again the punishment inflicted on some of the children I know as a result of the sins of their parents. All parents sin, of course, and as I was taught in Sunday School, all sin is equal in the eyes of God. However, all sin is not equal in the eyes of children, or in the eyes of their friends or society. Some are much worse, and sometimes, the parents who know this will try to keep those sins hidden from the eyes of their children.

In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (which, curiously enough, I just finished reading today), two twins are born to Adam and Cathy. However, Cathy soon runs away, leaving Adam to raise the boys. (If you plan on reading East of Eden any time soon, I’d skip the rest of this paragraph.) Adam discovers that Cathy is working at a whorehouse in Salinas, but he never tells his boys. As the twins grow older, one of them finds out, but the other does not --- not until the very end of the novel, and the news literally kills him.

But East of Eden also ends on a note of hope. As much as we inherit from our ancestors, we still have the choice of whether or not to let these past sins define us…. In my office there hangs a large lacework featuring the Lord’s Prayer. It was given to me by my grandparents, who are now dead, on the day of my ordination. It was made by a person whose heart was committed to God, and whose sense of beauty and attention to detail was great. It was made by my great grandmother, who, if my construction of the family tree is correct, was the daughter of that great-great grandfather with the bullet in his leg. Although I never knew her (she died when I was four), it seems to me that she did not allow the sin and bitterness of the past to define who she was.

Although I’ve never been, I hear that the descendants of the Hatfields and the McCoys (there are lots of us!) now get together every so often for a picnic. There’s barbecues, games, and a Hatfield vs. McCoy softball game.

The sins of the parents are punished to the third and fourth generation --- but no more. This is a limitation, not an extension, of punishment. Indeed, it seems to me that there is that choice, always, to move beyond the sins of our past, and start becoming the people God intends for us to be.

The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger , and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”
Exodus 34:6-7, as it appears in my great-grandmother’s 1953 RSV Bible.

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