Like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking about karma a lot the last few days.
The idea of karma is what’s reflected in a parable Jesus told that is the gospel text in many Christian churches around the world tomorrow.
The story Jesus tells in this parable for tomorrow’s reading is this: The landowner planted a vineyard, leased it to some tenants, and left. When the harvest time came, he sent his people to collect the produce, but the tenants refused them and beat, killed, and stoned them. So, as a final attempt, the landowner sent his son. But they killed him.
The question is then asked: Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?
And the answer is given: He will put those wretches to a miserable death.
This does not seem like a story that Jesus would tell. My problem with this parable is I thought God wrote a different ending to this story.
I thought Jesus broke that vicious cycle. That’s the great miracle of Easter—that God chose to write a different ending to this type of story. That in the narrative of Holy Week, there was Jesus, brutalized, lying lifeless in the grave. And there was the human family, most of them not even realizing what they had done and a few of them smug in the idea that they had rejected and overcome even the son who had been sent.
But, breaking the cycle of violence and retribution, God did not seek revenge but
awakened the son,
healed his wounds, and
brought him back into that same world with those
same people to keep on trying to love them into
his mercy and grace.
That is new ending to the story that God wrote.
This is a hard parable to talk about and understand because of how it ends—He will put those wretches to a miserable death.
But the last time I looked at this story it finally hit me: the ending of vengeance and recrimination was not Jesus’ word at all. Having described the actions of the tenants, Jesus asks the religious elites, What will the owner of the vineyard do?
And it is they, the religious elites in Jerusalem, who say, He will put those wretches to a miserable death.
It wasn’t Jesus who provided that answer. It was the religious leaders. In first reading the parable, I had fallen into the trap that we often fall into—I had read it as an allegory of God’s judgment, and without thinking I had assumed that the point was that God would act like the religious elites said he would.
Why would I ever think that God is more like the religious elites than like the agent of healing, redemption, and mercy that Jesus has been embodying throughout his ministry?
The religious leaders got it wrong again. They were following the old story, the old pattern. They didn’t understand yet that in Jesus God was writing a new ending.
Ever since I was in junior high, my favorite band has always been U2. I have a book that is made up of an extended interview on all kinds of topics with Bono, the lead singer of U2. Most of the members U2 are known to be Christians, and at one point in the interview, Bono makes a remarkably insightful statement about the difference between karma and grace. I don’t know if he’s the first person to make that connection, but it’s the only time I’ve ever heard it.
Bono says, The thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma. You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you:
an eye for an eye,
a tooth for a tooth, or
in physics; in physical laws every action is met by
an equal or an opposite one.
It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it.
And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. [Grace] interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff…. I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge….
It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity….
The point of the death of Christ is
that Christ took on the sins of the world,
so that what we put out did not come back to us,
and that our sinful nature does not reap the
That’s the point. And it should keep us humbled.
[Bono on Bono: Conversations with MichkaAssayas, p. 203]
The ending of Jesus’ parable of the landowner and the tenants, the ending that was supplied by the religious leaders, reflects a karma understand of the universe. The tenants deserved punishment, repayment, for their crimes, and landowner was going to give it to them.
The new ending that God wrote for that story is one of grace. And that new ending is that the life and death of Jesus ended the cycle of
“what you put out you get back” and
replaced it with
redemptive suffering for others and
Grace interrupts karma.
And so finally that parable begins to make sense.
The graceful surprise is that God did not respond the way the religious leaders expected. God decided on resurrection instead of revenge.
Martin Luther once said that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. This is one of those times.