I was at the drug store grabbing a few things, got in line, and waiting until it was my turn to check out. A homeless man comes up to the woman in front of me and asks her something I could not quite make out. She says sure, and he goes off down the food aisle. She turns to me and asks, “Why not right? It’s better than drugs or alcohol.” I tell her that I didn’t hear what he wanted. She told me he wanted cookies, and he comes back with a box of cookies, which she pays for and hands to him. I smiled at her generosity. Then she says to me and the cashier, “I need all the good karma I can get.” Ahh, so her motivation was to sow good seeds for herself. I get that. We all want to be blessed, have good luck, experience positive vibes, or whatever the current colloquialism is this day. Yet as Christians, we are supposed to have a very clear motivation: to serve and honor God. We do what is right, because God has given us insight of what is right through Scripture, and we honor God by enacting God’s will. If nothing good ever came back to us, then we would still do what is right according to the Lord.
No matter what that woman’s reason for doing what she did was, she did a good thing. I applaud her for her compassion that manifested itself in an act of kindness and mercy. That poor man was hungry and looked broken down, but kindness from a stranger can uplift the lowest spirit. I just think we need to be careful and clear as to why we do what we do. She threw around the word karma, a concept from Hinduism and Buddhism that gets overused and misunderstood. Karma, in its original and purest sense, is cause and effect. What we do causes an effect, not judged good or bad, just an effect. The earliest Hindus and Buddhists believed that reincarnation (rebirth after death) occurred when our effects had not been worked out. The intention was to cease causing effects so that reincarnation would cease, and the being liberated. Western culture has taken karma to be cosmic vengeance, payback for your bad thoughts and actions. But, as Job discovered, good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. The only difference is whether you are a good person or a bad person, and for Christians that determination is made according to God’s commandments and only by Christ’s judgment.
When we throw out karmic terms, then we have to follow it through. So did that homeless man do something awful to be poor and homeless? That’s a dangerous assumption, and one that lets society off the hook for the kind of institutional sins that make such states of being not only possible, but pervasive. No one deserves the kind of pain and suffering that extreme poverty and homelessness bring. Jesus said that those people will be blessed in the Kingdom to come, because they have suffered so in this life. No matter where we find ourselves socially or economically, we need to do all that we can to enact the will of God. It is more than being good for the sake of being good, or because “it’s the right thing to do.” We do what God says, because God loves us first and we love God. That is causality, and yet it involves free will, the choice to receive and respond to divine love. We do not just return it to God above, but radiate it outwards to all people. We cannot pick and choose who will receive, but shower it upon every person, because God offers grace, the ultimate gift of love, to everyone. Christ was here in our midst doing the best possible good during his earthly ministry, and look what came back to him: hatred, betrayal, dismissal, mocking, suffering, and death. But knowing that would come did not stop Christ, he did what he did because it was good and just, the will of God, and we are called to follow that example. Don’t love because you want to be loved. Don’t give because you want to receive. Give freely of yourself because God gives freely to you, and your doing so brings honor and glory to the one who redeems you with grace and love. That’s what this Christian discipleship is all about.