In early high school, I heard a sermon on Ezra 9 that moved me deeply. One of the preacher’s main points was that Ezra so identified himself with Israel that he couldn’t help confessing sins in anguish which he did not personally commit. Ezra didn’t intermarry with women from foreign nations, but that does not prevent Ezra from speaking of “our sins” and “our guilt” (Ezra 9:6). Why does Ezra confess sins not his own?
We cannot easily escape the fact that Ezra, as a leader of Judah, wants to take some responsibility for the sins of his brothers as one of the returned exiles. Not long ago, I actually wrestled with a counselor’s thoughts with this passage in the back of my mind. Most of western psychological thinking suggests that it is dangerous and harmful to take responsibility for any actions but our own. Seeing how abusers prey on those who take responsibility for others’ evil and take blame not theirs, I must admit I have some difficulty with what Ezra says today.
Re-reading this passage helps me place Ezra’s words in a different light than the way I heard them years ago. Ezra doesn’t give a pass to those who actually sin themselves; Ezra 10 is full of atoning sacrifices and reparations which he and the leaders demand. However, Ezra sees himself as part of an evil generation that has rejected God unnecessarily, and as a leader, he takes responsibility for the sins of his fellow Jews. This is what loving leadership pictures–it shares in the blame, but doesn’t absolve from guilt or reject the need for followers to repent.
Christ Himself would lead by dying for our sins without ever sinning, but still demanding repentance in order to have life. Thus, Ezra’s confession of sin reflects and prepares the way for some of Jesus’ leadership.