We are going to be talking about one of Jesus’ most vivid parables today, of rich and poor, of justice and injustice, and heaven and the fires of hell. Before we get there though we really have to set the stage, and to do that I first need to convince you that you and I mostly live our lives according to a sense of Karma, a bit of an unusual statement for someone speaking in a church professing to follow Christ. So let’s look at the definition of Karma, and turn to that definitive source of wisdom, Wikipedia:
Karma … refers to the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect). Good intent and good deed contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deed contribute to bad karma and future suffering.
We all Karma
I suggest to you that the embedded cultural view we all share is basically Karmic. For example, I think you can all complete these statements:
What goes around… (comes around)
You get what you… (pay for; deserve)
You made your bed, so you… (lie in it)
Ying and… (yang)
As you sow, so shall you… (reap)
That last one should surprise you. It is from the Apostle Paul, Galatians 6:7. So did Paul believe in Karma? Does the Bible actually teach a version of Karma?
On the surface, the bible seems to have a lot of Karmic philosophy. For example, from Joshua chapter 1 verse 8, the Lord spoke to Joshua:
Keep this book of the law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.
Or on a less ominous note, Proverbs 6:10-11:
A little sleep, a little slumber,
A little folding of the hands to rest—
And poverty will come on you like a thief
And scarcity like an armed man.
There it is! You get what you deserve and what goes around comes around!
Job and Karma
If you want to read a whole book about the debate over Karma, read Job. Job is one of the earliest books of the Bible from a historical perspective. It is clearly written as a morality play, with a prologue, at least 3 acts between Job and his so-called friends, a dramatic climax where God himself answers Job’s complaints, and then an epilogue where everything is resolved, after a fashion.
Job is described as a righteous man, yet faces trouble that we get to see is not of his own making. In the prologue we learned that Satan, up to his tricks, incites God, telling him that Job is only good for Karma’s sake. God disagrees, and allows Job to be tested severely. During these tests Job’s “friends,” who came to “comfort” him, show themselves to be card carrying members of the Karma Club. Helpfully, one says to him:
Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?
Where were the upright ever destroyed?
As I have observed, those who plow evil
And those who sow trouble reap it.
Do you hear it? Good things happen to good people, and we get what we deserve. Are there even echoes of Paul’s statement here, as you sow, so shall you reap?
Job’s friends didn’t get it, believing Job had to have done something wrong to have suffered misfortune. They were wrong, but they bring it all home for me. You see I think that we all expect Karma from life and God, and sometimes hope for Karma in some very strange ways.
My belief in Karma
For example, there are times I hope for Karma. I am pulling up to a yellow light, stopping as I should, and one or two cars in the other lane and behind me rush through as the light is turning red. No lemon; it’s all tomato. Other than muttered curses, I also look around hoping that for once a cop would show up so that justice would be done. In fact, my conservative approach to driving should highlight the evil behavior of other drivers, and make it easy for the police. This, despite my earnest hope, has never yet happened.
Sometimes I expect Karma to fall on me. Say I just might have eased it a bit over 70 on I-75 on the way up north. Completely justified, right? The rules for red lights are important, but for speeding… Then I see the dreaded blue sedan parked in the median and instinctively jerk my foot off the gas, once again looking around, but this time out of fear of seeing karmic justice fall on me.
For me, when I am honest, my deep-seated belief in Karma can get much more sinister. I am asked to care for a young person in the ICU due to a car accident. I look at the history; is there drug use, alcohol, texting. Something. I don’t wish it on them, but with every check box I am secretly noting the ways this person is not me or my close friends, and so this can’t happen to me. Please let Karma be intact! You might think this is implying that I believe the young person in some way got what they deserved. I don’t. God help me if I ever thought that. I think what is actually going on is a bit subtler.
When bad things happen, we all want to find a reason; we are like Job’s friends. And one reason we hope for this is to avoid facing the reality that the world often does not act in a Karmic way, and nor does God. I am looking for a reason to not be insecure. But bad things do happen to good people. We often don’t get what we deserve. The writer of Ecclesiastes expresses this frustration well (8:14):
There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.
So a sense of Karma permeates our culture and thinking, ancient cultures of at least some Biblical times, and can color our underlying beliefs about God. What does Jesus have to say about this very human way of navigating a dangerous and difficult world?
What did Jesus believe about Karma?
When Jesus walked out of the wilderness, he said something that changed the world and the way we think about it: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He didn’t say, “Repent, because you are a miserable sinner.” He didn’t say, “Repent, or suffer the fires of Hell!” He said to repent, or change your mind and behavior, because I am proclaiming a new way to think about life, the Kingdom of Heaven, and it is very different from what you have been taught and what you now believe.
Did he mean it? I believe the clarion call of his defining mission statement, the Sermon on the Mount, was “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” So, for instance, “You have heard it said do not murder, but I say to you if you are angry with your sister you will be judged. Call her a fool and you are in danger of the fires of hell.” That escalated quickly, and beyond simple Karma!
He says things like, “you have heard it was said, ‘do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that if you look at a woman lustfully you have committed adultery in your heart.” Has your eye ever lingered over the SI Swimsuit Edition?
Jesus raises the bar way beyond the rules the spiritual leaders and the elite of his day had outlined so that they could feel Karmic peace about themselves, and look good in front of others.
But life in the Kingdom of Heaven goes so much further than Karma. ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth?’ Karma. ‘No, turn the other cheek.’ Kingdom. ‘Someone takes your shirt?’ Karma. ‘Give them your coat also.’ Kingdom.
But here is where Jesus sticks the knife into any notion we might have that Karma is in any way compatible with the Kingdom of Heaven:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Bam. The Kingdom of Heaven is not business as usual. Love your enemies. Recognize God loves your enemies. Don’t hope for Karma for them, and don’t expect it for yourself. Jesus goes so far as to say, “Do not resist an evil person.” How you get your head around that one? Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled deeply with this very command of Jesus when he ultimately decided to participate in a plot to kill Hitler. These are not just pretty words. If we hear them and try to live them it will be the hardest thing we have ever done. This is a Kingdom, and the rule is a radically different than anything in our old way of thinking or experience. This is why we need to repent. We need to change the way we think and feel to live the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is near and that Kingdom is based on a radical and costly love we have not yet even imagined.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
So the first thing we need to remember to read this parable is our tendency to think in Karma. The second is more stagecraft.
So in a wider context, Luke 16:1 tells us Jesus is teaching his disciples. So imagine Jesus teaching here (area on the stage), and his disciples are gathered around him. But wait; there is more… In verse 14 we see a wider audience, the most revered religious people of the day, a group of Pharisees. They are standing or sitting over here (second location on the stage), just beyond the inner circle, listening with ill intent to everything Jesus is saying, looking for a way to discredit him in court and even have him killed. Simply remember the repeating theme of the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said…, but I say to you…” The Pharisees were the “You have heard it saids.” Jesus had not been complimentary. Let may give you just one example of what Jesus said directly to them earlier in the gospel of Luke, chapter 11, verse 46:
And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.
Saying that kind of stuff to the powerful can get you killed. Jesus is aware of the stakes, and of his disciple’s need to understand the Kingdom of Heaven as it is radically different than what they have heard these teachers say.
So to the parable:
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
So this story could not be more “karmic.” You do evil, by active intent or by indifference, and you get punished; you suffer the fires of hades, horrible torment. Did Jesus really believe this? Is that the point of his story? This is an extraordinarily Greek idea. To the Greeks, on arrival at the Gates of Hades your final destination was determined by your deeds during life. To be condemned to ultimate torment was only true for the very worst people.* Justice was Karmic, and weighed by the scales of deed and thought.
There are many levels to this parable, but I think Jesus was being intentionally absurd, for the benefit of his disciples and to warn the Pharisees, who loved money and power. The Pharisees believed in a deep way they got what they deserved in life, while the poor beggar likely got what he deserved; Karma.
Jesus’ disciples also believed this deeply before learning of the Kingdom of Heaven from him. One time when they saw a blind man they asked Jesus who sinned, the man or his parents? Someone had to have! I believe one of the biggest challenges Jesus faced in ministry was to confront the cultural Karmic belief of his time and help his followers repent and begin to think and act from the Kingdom of Heaven and not Karma.
Let me give you one more example. Remember the story of the Rich Young Ruler? He was a good man who, unlike many of the Pharisees, actually did follow the rules and lived with compassion. Despite this he wanted to know what he needed to do to be saved. Jesus in essence said ‘One thing you lack: give up your Karma, the fortune you seem to feel you deserve, and follow me.’ He could not do it. It wasn’t fair. He walked away. The disciples could tell Jesus was truly moved and disappointed. Remember his response to the disciples? “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved.” Now the disciples were mostly not rich, but they finally begin to understand what Jesus was really saying: you have to give up your Karma and live in the Kingdom of Heaven, and you won’t get what you deserve.
The disciples began to get it. They asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus’ answer is key to the parable we read: “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
Remember what was impossible in the parable? There was this fixed chasm that could not be crossed between Abraham’s side and the torments of Hades. Who put it there? Did God really create the river Styx? Does he act out of a cosmic sense Karma? Would it delight him if we got what we deserved? Is that the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus proclaimed? If it is, then there is no place for the cross. The point of the Kingdom of Heaven is that you and I are not going to get what we deserve. Jesus did.
So if God didn’t create the chasm who or what does? I think the point of the story is that we construct this great chasm, and it is because we insist on our sense of Karma or justice, when it benefits us or makes us feel good about ourselves or condemns those we judge. And the more we cling to it, and the more we insist on it, the wider the chasm becomes. Karma permeates our thinking, the “You have heard it saids…” But the Kingdom of Heaven says to turn the other cheek, to not resist an evil person, to love your enemy and pray for them. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a balance of good and bad works that ultimately determines our eternal destiny. God’s justice is not Karma; it is grace at the cost of a cross. You see, unlike Karma, God causes his rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Living the Kingdom of Heaven
So let me humbly preach the gospel to you; Karma is not like the Kingdom of Heaven we inherit as dearly loved children. We all need to repent and rethink life in light of the Kingdom of Heaven because we are not going to get what we deserve, and neither is our enemy.
How do we repent? Who do we need to forgive? Who do we need to love, who does not deserve it? Do we hate ISIS? Do we resent religious people who have hurt us deeply in the past because of our faith, or our beliefs about gender or race, or sexuality? If you get it, this is really hard stuff. Bonhoeffer and Hitler hard stuff. At a very deep level I want a bully to get what he or she deserves. But the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven is really, really good news—it puts justice, fate and our sense of Karma firmly in God’s hands. We are therefore free to live from the Kingdom of Heaven, to love radically, and to be loved extravagantly by God.
* http://www.ancient.eu/Hades/ HADES THE UNDERWORLD
The god Hermes was believed to lead souls to the river Styx in the underworld, at which point the aged boatman Charon ferried them to the gates of Hades where Kerberos - the ferocious three-headed dog (or fifty-headed according to Hesiod) with serpents coming out of its body - stood guard to keep souls in rather than to keep others out. It was for payment to Charon that bereaved family members put a coin in the mouth of the deceased (for Greeks the traditional coin was the low-value obol). The unburied or those without the means to pay the boatman were condemned to wander the Earth as ghosts. This belief hints at the ambiguous nature of Hades. It was not necessarily a place of torment and suffering but in most cases, simply the final resting place of the soul.
On arrival at the gates of Hades, the final destination of the souls was determined by an assessment of their actions whilst they were alive. Traditionally, the three judges of souls were Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Aiakos, themselves noted for their honourable lives. Souls judged to have led especially good lives were first taken to drink the waters of the River Lethe which made them forget all bad things, and then they were taken to the idyllic Elysian Fields. Those souls judged to have led bad lives were put in the hands of the Furies and taken to Tartarus, the lowest level of Hades, to receive punishment for their misdeeds. The worst-offending souls, those who had offended the gods with their impiety, were condemned to eternal torment. Examples of those so punished were Sisyphos who had to forever roll a rock up a hill, Tantalos who could never quench his thirst, Oknos who plaits one end of a rope while a donkey eats the other end, the daughters of Danaus who had to try and fill a sieve with water, and Ixion who was tied to an ever-spinning wheel.