Perhaps one of the most popular cultural and religious ideas is the notion of karma. It’s an Eastern teaching that is everywhere is pop culture: the philosophies of celebrities like the Beatles, the sub-plots of films like It’s a Wonderful Life or Pay it Forward, or, my personal favorite, TV shows like My Name is Earl.
In the show, Jason Lee plays a middle-aged low-life (he’s the one whose name is “Earl”) who has enjoyed an entirely self-centered existence of theft, drunkenness, cheating on his various partners, and general debauchery. One day on a whim he decides to buy a lottery ticket, wins $100,000 and, as he runs outside to celebrate, gets hit by a car. As he recovers in the hospital, he learns about karma, the idea that we are repaid, at some point in the present or future, for our daily actions, good or bad. He decides that day to use the $100,000 to make a list of every bad thing he has ever done in his life and, one-by-one, try to make up for it. The rest of the show documents Earl tackling his list one bad decision at a time, leaving room for a lot of what is honestly pretty hilarious comedy.
Karma appeals to our innate sensibilities for justice. It makes sense for people to be punished for what they do wrong and rewarded for what they do right. Not only that, but we inwardly rage about the unfairness of the world because it so rarely reflects that instinctual reality. Who hasn’t had thoughts about who really deserves those promotions, what that paycheck should look like, or whether that person will get what’s coming to them. It’s a lens many of us look at the world through that always leave us upset when our idea of justice is not played out.
Believe it or not, Jesus spoke on this issue. In Matthew 5, Jesus spends a lot of his time redefining what it means to follow God. He attacks the conceptions of the people at the time in terms of their view on divorce, relationships with their friends, how we view people, and even justice. In the final section of his teaching, right after he calls his followers to love their enemies (ouch), he makes this statement “He (God) causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (5:45b).
What is Jesus saying here? That God has no standard of right and wrong? That our actions have no consequences? I don’t think so. What I think Jesus is doing here is drawing a constant comparison between what comes to us instinctively and what God desires for his people. Remember, this is a passage where, at the end, Jesus says to his followers, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).
This is not a literal moral perfection, but instead a call to us to act in the world as our perfect God does. And our God shows love to people (through the sun and the rain) to everybody (evil and good, righteous and unrighteous). Remember, Jesus was talking to a farming people; the sun and the rain were absolutely essential for their livelihood and well-being. It would seem to make sense to us that the God of our instincts, the God of karma, would set up the world so that the rain would only fall and the sun would only shine on those who are good to others and worship God correctly. However, that is obviously not the case; instead, God shows love and goodness to all people, whether they acknowledge him or not.
What are the implications here? It seems like Jesus is calling us to look at the world through a different lens, and that lens is grace. The more we use words like deserve, or should, or payment, the more we are getting away from the good news of the gospel: that Jesus Christ came and died for us, through no power or work of our own, so that we could be forgiven and live in relationship with our Creator and Lord. Grace is the unmerited favor of the Lord, and our response to that should be gratefulness for the love he has shown us, and a desire to share that grace and love with others.
This is our call: to love all people, evil or good, unrighteous or righteous. Remember, God rejects our own instinctual, retributive justice that would call us to be condemned for our sin and instead embraces a justice that brings redemption through the cross. Hallelujah, amen.
Jordan McCain, New City Stories Contributor