This was an ancient saying, an idiom that was well-known in the ancient near east amongst the nation of Judah, some 2500 years ago. And you might be wondering what on earth does it have to do with us, here, today and what does it mean anyway. Let’s start with the meaning first and then get to why its meaningful for us.
A lot of Biblical and ancient scholars have studied the possible meaning of this idiom and not everyone agrees on the exact meaning. Which often happens with idioms that use symbolic language and are particular to a certain place and time and culture. I am sure that we can share some idioms with one another that we heard our grandparents use, that, if we use it today with our children or grandchildren we will have to explain the meaning of is. And this is within the same language and culture and even family. So imagine how meaning can be lost over centuries, cultures and geographical distance.
What most scholars agree on is that it has to do with the impact of one’s actions, and more particularly that although others often have to bear the consequences of your actions, you have to take responsibility for your own actions. So actions, consequences and responsibilities. And all of this is set within the parameters of the passing of time.
Whatever I do now, I must take responsibility for now… and later, but the consequences might actually only come into effect, possibly even over subsequent generations.
‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
Allow me to use a pressing contemporary example:
If this generation, you and I, through our actions of consumption and production continue to produce the same levels of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere as we currently do whilst continuing to lessen and deplete the biosphere’s ability to process the carbon dioxide back into oxygen, say through the continued destruction of the Amazon and Indonesian rainforests, then the consequences will include a crossing of the biosphere’s ability to stabilise the weather patterns and the oceans’ ability to maintain its function as thermostat and carbon capture sink. This in turn will lead to the continued loss of biodiversity and increase of droughts, runaway fires and floods which in turn will increase the number of climate refugees and societal socio-political breakdown across the world. So who will then be responsible for the collapse of social stability, health care systems, and water supplies? The current and future refugees? Or the current and previous mass consumers?
Who is ultimately responsible for the increasing level instability of mass people movement across borders? Whether legal or illegal. The wealthy industrialised countries who have for generations been producing cheap consumables and consuming natural resources in the process or the pre-industrialised countries whose rivers have consequently run dry, whose crops are failing and whose island houses are being submerged by rising sea levels… only to have to flee to neighbouring countries who themselves are struggling to keep their lights on?
‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
Now please do not think that I intend to have us feel all guilty for living our 9 to 5 everyday jobs of earning and income, paying our taxes and enjoying the necessities and luxuries of life. The purpose of this reflection is not to take us all on a guilt trip.
The purpose of this reflection is rather two-fold.
On the one hand it is to say that we have agency, especially into the future. We are able and capable of making the world a better place. Admittedly also a worse place, but hopefully we will aspire and work toward making the future better for the next generation, and the next one after that, and subsequent generations.
Like some scientists did when they developed cures and solutions that have benefitted subsequent generations. Curing polio, developing X-rays, figuring out how the human and biospherical systems work. Or social innovators like Martin Luther King, or Emmeline Pankhurst, or everyone who stood up for the disenfranchised, however small their intervention was at the start – the consequences would have rippled out over the pond of time. We are able and capable of making the world a better place.
Acts of kindness and care and treating others with dignity can and will have effects that will keep making the world better. Consequences of actions.
But what if we don’t – what if we live lives of selfishness? Of shortermism. What if we only care about the next quarter’s profitability, what if we only care about our comfort or our immediate needs being met – but never consider the future? Never stop to think what the effect would be over time.
In our local community magazine, the Corstorphine Grapevine, one of the thought-pieces refer to something the local council did, like so many other councils across Britain of late – the irresponsible dumping of sewerage waste hundreds of time per year into our river systems. It might make sense to someone somewhere, but the eventual knock-on effect is the deterioration, even the eventual complete destruction of complete ecosystems. But at least the water company executives will say their bottom-line profits are looking good.
Who will hold irresponsible decision makers to account?
In the words of this former MP writing in the Grapevine: ‘The lack of planning for the future is getting worse each year, and whilst it might not effect the older generation much, we must all make sure that our politicians, planners and those responsible, take much more action to protect the next generations in a way they (and I would say we) have failed to do for many years.’
Another shocking example this month has been the millions of people in the UK who collectively had billions of pounds of value destroyed from out of their pension funds by the selfish, ill-thought through, shortermist decisions of a few leaders in power. Ironically the burden to try to fix the problem has been laid on subsequent generations who have now been indebted through the borrowing that was necessitated to stabilise the market.
The children’s teeth are at risk from the parent’s grape eating.
Who will hold irresponsible leaders to account?
And is there even anything that can be done about such injustices?
There is a group, a federation of native Americans, first nations people, who are based around the north-east of the North-American continent, called the Iroquois. They have a guiding life principles that they expect their leadership, their elders to abide by, called the Seven Generations principle. The principle states that what we do must not harm subsequent generations. What we do should have positive effects many generations to come. Some people understand this principle to mean you and I are benefitting from three generations before ours, in other words our great grandparents. Some of us might even have been blessed enough to have known one or more of our great grandparents. So three generations previous to us have left us the legacy, the life, the society we find ourselves in. We, similarly, are building, erecting or destroying, the generation that three generations hence will be experiencing, possibly even in our very lifetime. Some of us might be blessed enough to hold our great grandchildren in our arms. The world we are busy influencing, shaping, is the one we give them to grow up in.
Is the air we leave our great-grandchildren cleaner? Are human rights more dignified? Is the biodiversity more secure or more depleted? Is the state of marriage as a valued societal institution more revered or more disregarded? Are strangers safer in our communities or less so?
If at this point you might say, Alan, it’s somewhat overwhelming to take responsibility for future generations. I am struggling just to keep things together for my own.
Which brings us close to the rest of the meaning of today’s prophetic Scripture from Jeremiah.
When the old Testament prophet Jeremiah was speaking to his people, it was to a group of exiles who were down and out, thinking they will always be held captive to the irresponsible actions of their parents and ancestors. That the predicament they were finding themselves in will never improve.
But that is when the prophet says, God is doing a new thing. God will guide you to do the right thing. God will bind his nation into a new covenant that will inspire them to know right from wrong.
Jesus years later probably has this very promise in mind when He refers to this new covenant when He inaugurates the very first communion saying that the cup of wine He is holding is a sign of the new covenant God is making with his children.
I can appreciate that it can be overwhelming trying to figure out what the right thing is to do – but that is where our faith in God really does play a not insignificant role.
When making decisions, when taking actions, when forming habits – we are invited by the prophet Jeremiah, by Jesus Christ, by the very spirit of God to pause, and to discern intellectually, spiritually, with our whole being – what is the right thing to do.
Because whatever we decide, whatever we do, will have consequences and we will have to take ownership, responsibility, of our decisions, of our actions.
In today’s word God promises we will have the word of God written in our very hearts – I invite you to take the time, the effort, the joy of discerning the word of God in your very spirit as you go through life, and if you obey the Spirit of God you will be a blessing to the next generation and onto the next generation.
Rev Alan Childs, October 2022