From the Prophet Obadiah:
As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Obadiah 1:15b (NRSV) – November 27, 2013.)
Obadiah’s words (on behalf of God) are directed to the Edomites; this short (one-chapter) book is a rather dire prediction of the complete destruction Edom for the way it had dealt with Israel. Apparently it was correct for there seem to be no Edomites, nor any descendants of Edomites identifiable in the modern world.
On another level, however, it speaks to all of us about the reality of consequences. If one were going to paraphrase this verse in modern idiom, it might be rendered “What goes around, comes around.” St. Paul struck the same theme in his letter to the Galatians when he reminded them that “you reap whatever you sow.” (Gal. 6:7)
Our Hindu friends have a word for this concept – Karma. Of course, in Hindu belief, which accepts the idea of reincarnation, karmic activity may not happen in this life, but in a later life. That is not an option given Christians; we do not teach a circular, repeating conception of time, nor the doctrine of reincarnation. The biblical understanding of time is that it had a beginning, it will have an end, and we get one chance in this world to do what is right. One’s karmic just deserts are either received in this life, which was the teaching of the ancient “wisdom” version of the Jewish religion (and of the “prosperity gospel” preachers), or in the great here-after, which is the teaching of some Christian sects.
That latter belief, of course, gives rise to questions about heaven, hell, purgatory, reward, punishment, eternal damnation, eternal life in heaven . . . O dear!
I had a parishioner several years ago who, on a pretty regular basis, would ask, “What happens when we die? Where do we go?” I had a standard answer for her: “Martha,” I would say, “I don’t know. I haven’t been there yet.” I would tell her, though, that I have a hope and my hope is that Obadiah, the old “goes around comes around” proverb, St. Paul, and the doctrine of karma are wrong! I hope that what awaits us is not the justice promised by all of them, but the grace promised by the gospel.
That’s no reason not to pay attention to Obadiah’s and karma’s implied admonition to do and be good, however. In a less cosmic sense, what goes around does come around. Treat someone badly, you’re likely to be treated badly yourself. Treat someone well, you’re likely to get the same treatment. I may not know what happens when we die (yet), but I’m pretty sure about this.
So when all is said and done, when it comes to getting our just deserts and reaping what we sow, call it “karma” or “wisdom” or whatever, my advice is to live like it’s absolutely true, and hope to God it’s not!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.