Looking Backward and Forward at Karma
You’re supposed to reap what you sow. Plant a fig tree, wait a couple of years, and you get figs. Put on a new roof, wait for the rain, and ta-da! No leaks. Study hard, pass the test. Do your rehab after surgery, recover faster and better. Every action leads to a result.
The Hindu scriptures call it karma, the law of cause and effect. They don’t just apply it to physical things like Karma refers to the effects your deeds have on your soul. Because the Hindus conceive of our souls as a gigantic ocean of spiritual life, whatever I do will have an effect, even if my crime is only a drop in the ocean. If I tell a lie, that dishonesty will eventually work its way around to me. If I stand up to a bully, that bravery will eventually come around to help me.
Jesus certainly believed in this, up to a point. In the parable I just read, the farmer sentences the fig tree to death for sucking valuable nutrients out of the soil and failing to make fruit. And the worker asks for a stay of execution: let me dig and fertilize, boss. Give the tree one more chance. Maybe the worker forgot to add manure the last three years, or didn’t prune the roots to stimulate those tiny little roots to grow and take up minerals. Maybe the worker’s karma is coming back to hit him, not the tree’s.
Jesus and both his imaginary characters, the farmer and the worker, believe that causes lead to effects, and when that breaks down, there ought to be consequences. Karma, right?
Well, maybe not. Back up and look again. That is not why Jesus told this parable. He was listening to some people discuss the news headlines: Galileeans killed as Pilate desecrates Temple and Eighteen die as Tower flattens them.
Pilate was the same Roman Governor who would soon sentence Jesus to execution as punishment for claiming to be king of the Jews. Apparently some of Jesus’ countrymen from Galilee were in the Temple doing a sacrifice when Pilate had them killed for some reason and their blood mixed with the sacrificial blood. This was disgusting for so many reasons
- Romans have no permission to enter the Temple,
- The Temple is no place for executions,
- The Jewish religion forbids human sacrifice,
- Mixing animal and human blood is not only unkosher but almost mocks the Jewish God for being some kind of cannibal. Messing with the Temple was the most provocative thing that the Romans ever did to the Jews.
The other story in the news was the collapsing tower. How come those people were crushed? Why not the architect or the general contractor? Is there no justice?
A student of mine last year told of his family having to miss their flight eighteen years ago from Canada to Switzerland due to illness. But that flight crashed. No one survived. Was it karma or fate or just good luck that Julian and his folks did not board? And does that mean it was fated that the ones who did not cancel at the last minute would perish?
It reminds us of the stories from the Twin Towers in 2001, when someone was late for work and got there in time to see the horror. Or worse still, when fire fighters made the fatal choice to begin climbing the World Trade Center stairs.
Did those Galileeans deserve their fate, Jesus? They were just making a sacrifice like anyone does on special occasions. Did God reject their prayers? And the people crushed by the Tower? Why were those particular eighteen there when it fell? Surely there is a reason!
Not so fast, says Jesus. Whatever sin the Galileeans were asking forgiveness for, whatever guilt the people at the Tower of Siloam had on their consciences, it was no greater or less than the average person. Most misfortunes are random. Accidental. No one could have known in advance when Pilate would lose his temper. No one could have predicted the moment when the beam or the cross-tie would break and the tower give way.
Most disasters are meaningless until we look backward at them. Looking backward, sometimes we can find a message. Sometimes a crying shame turns out to have been a tragedy. Someone had a tragic flaw. There was once an old farmer in China who had worked his crops for many years. One day his only horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
“Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to their village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.
The villagers were always quick to find the hand of fate guiding what looks at first like coincidence. Twenty-twenty hindsight. Maybe.
Occasionally, Jesus says, we don’t have to wait for hindsight to discover what something means. Our purpose in life is sometimes given to us straightforwardly. We meet the love of our life in a pub in England and we’ve got a choice. Some door is opened and it’s obvious that we need to walk through it. A diagnosis makes our short-term future clear. A departure leaves us in charge of something we aren’t ready to lead.
Sometimes, Jesus says, we can see the karma up ahead. All our meanings are not revealed in the rear-view mirror.
And thus, sometimes, we are like the fig tree and the worker. We’ve been put on notice. We’ve seen the path ahead; fogged-in until just now. We’d better get to work. We’d better get our tools and dig. Find some compost and put it to work. This tree has a year to do its duty.
A student wrote me this week, “it sounds sort of stupid, but I think the meaning of life is to find out what the meaning of our life is.” No, it doesn’t sound stupid to me. Most of the time, we have to react to the unexpected, like the relatives of the victims of those two disasters in Jerusalem.
But sometimes, we have to act, not just re-act. To take the clue we’re given, or the hint, or the invitation, or the map, and move.
Bad things happen to good people all the time. Violations of the rule of karma. Unwarranted suffering. The author of that most famous book on the subject, Rabbi Harold Kushner, concluded that our response to suffering needs to look backward AND forward.
Looking backward, we search for the invisible karma that we missed. We mustn’t obsess about this, however, because the meaningfulness moving forward is more important. The Kushners quickly agreed that they and their son had done nothing to deserve the fatal disease. There was virtually no backward-looking meaningfulness. But they DID discover that after the death of their son, they had to live with more attention to all the life events their son would never savor: graduation, young love, marriage, children, and even old age. They resolved to live more fully whatever parts of his life they could in his honor.
So how do you know whether the bad thing happening to you is just a random incident, meaningless in retrospect, or whether it is not random. Waste no time looking into why those poor disaster victims were chosen. They weren’t chosen.
When it isn’t random, study the traces of karma that remain. Look back and learn. And look ahead. There will be a warning if it isn’t random, Jesus says. Pay attention to the warning. It might be a farmer giving you a year’s time to bring the tree around.