Karma versus grace.

One’s how we work—at our best. The other’s how God works.

Matthew 5.38-42 • Luke 6.29-31

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught on reciprocity, satisfaction, and revenge. Or, as our popular culture calls it, karma.

No, what we nowadays call karma isn’t what the Hindus mean by it. Properly karma is the total of all the good and evil deeds we commit in our lives, and when you add ’em up, if the scales balance towards good, your next life will be better; if they don’t, your next life is worse; if it’s about even, you’ll be reborn in pretty much the same circumstances. So why does western culture assume karma means when we do good, good comes back; when we do evil, evil comes back? I suspect it largely comes from John Lennon’s 1970 song “Instant Karma!”:

Instant karma’s gonna get you
Gonna knock you right on the head
You better get yourself together
Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead

Westerners unfamiliar with Hinduism assumed “instant karma” is karma, and that’s how we’ve described it since. But the idea of instant, near-instant, or soon-coming consequences isn’t an eastern idea. It’s a middle eastern one. It’s from the bible.

1 Samuel 25.39 KWL
David heard Navál died, and said, “Bless the LORD, who fought my fight,
my slander from Navál’s hand, and spared his servant from evil.
The LORD turned back Navál’s evil to his own head.”
So David sent for and spoke with Avigayíl, to take her as his woman.

If you don’t know the story: Before David was king, a man named Navál insulted him, so David lost his temper and took 300 troops to go destroy his house. But Navál’s wife Avigayíl intercepted them, and talked David down. (Giving him a bunch of food didn’t hurt either.) David realized he totally overreacted, repented, and thanked God for stopping him. So, that’d be sorta-kinda-good karma on David’s part; bad on Navál’s.

Which played out immediately. Once Navál found out what she’d done… well, it sounds like he had a stroke. David interpreted this like most folks in his culture interpreted this: When people do evil, God lets evil happen to them in return. 1Sa 25 He turns people’s iniquity back on them; Ps 94.23 he hoists them on their own petard; he lets Wile E. Coyote’s inventions blow him up instead of the Road Runner.

We call it karma. To pagans, it’s God or “the universe” paying you back. Or karma’s treated like an intelligent force on its own. However it works. It’s an idea which gives people a lot of comfort: If justice isn’t done, the infinite cosmos itself will abhor and come after you.

Thing is, though it’s a middle eastern idea, found in the bible ’n everything, it’s actually not how God works. God does grace. We don’t. Nor, many times, do we want God to do grace; we want him to get those motherf---ers and give ’em what they deserve. And worse.

It’s why Jesus had to correct this graceless idea in his Sermon.

Matthew 5.38-42 KWL
38 “You heard this said: ‘Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth.’ Ex 21.24, Lv 24.20, Dt 19.21
39 And I tell you: No comparing yourself to evil.
Instead, whoever punches you on the right side of your jaw: Turn from them all the more.
40 To those who want you judged, to take your tunic: Forgive them, and let go of your clothing.
41 Whoever drafts you to carry their gear one mile, go with them two.
42 Give to one who asks you. Don’t drive off one who wishes to borrow from you.”
Luke 6.29-31 KWL
29 “To one who hits you on the jaw, submit all the more.
To one who takes your robe and tunic from you, don’t stop them.
30 Give to everyone who asks you. Don’t demand payback from those who take what’s yours.
31 Just as you wish people would do for you, do likewise for them.”

Okay yes, I translated this a bit different from the more popular “Turn the other cheek,” and “If they want your tunic, give ’em your robe.” Lemme explain why.

Quit comparing yourselves to evil.

Ever seen someone turn the other cheek in real life? Probably not. Most of the time, when someone gets socked in the jaw, they don’t get back up and offer the other side of their face. They punch back. Christians included. People simply don’t follow this instruction: They retaliate. It’s human nature. You hit me, I hit you. Bruise for bruise.

Now, in movies you’ll see someone turn the other cheek. But the reason they do this actually isn’t because they’re trying to follow Jesus. It’s because they’re trying to show the person striking them, “Look what a badass I am. That was the best you could do? Your mother kisses harder. I could stand to take another one. Go ahead. Hit me again. I dare you.”

Yep, it’s a hostile act.

Ever seen someone have an item taken away from them, and in response they offer to give up something else? Again, they’re not doing this ’cause they’re following Jesus’s instruction. It’s part of a tantrum: “Oh, so you’re repossessing my car? Well here! Why don’t you take my driver’s license, while you’re at it! Take my bike! Take my bus pass! Take every means I have of getting anywhere! Here, you can have my shoes!” Again, it’s not done for any other reason than aggression and a lack of gentleness.

“Hit me again!” or “Go ahead, take it all!” are never done in the spirit Jesus would want of us. Never would be done in the spirit Jesus would want of us. When we’re interpreting Jesus’s teachings, we primarily have to remember Jesus’s character. He wants us to do these things out of fruit of the Spirit—out of love, patience, kindness, gentleness. Not rage. Not pique.

So I looked at how else this lesson could be legitimately translated.

Matthew 5.38-39 KWL
38 “You heard this said: ‘Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth.’ Ex 21.24, Lv 24.20, Dt 19.21
39A And I tell you: No comparing yourself to evil.”

Mi antistínai to poniró tends to be rendered “Do not resist an evil person.” (NIV) I should point out poniró simply means “evil.” (KJV) Bibles go with “evil person” because… well, we’re supposed to resist evil, right? Ep 6.13 Certainly we’re to resist the devil. Jm 4.7 “Don’t resist an evildoer” contradicts “Resist the devil.” There’s your sign it’s not that good an interpretation.

Antistínai/“standing [yourself] against” can be interpreted “resisting,” but it can also be interpreted “comparing.” And isn’t comparison exactly what we do when we retaliate? The whole point of “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise, whip for whip” Ex 21.24-25 is that we look at what the evildoer did to us, and make sure we give as good as we got. And no more; the trouble with human nature is we wanna go overboard. Not eye for eye, but life for eye.

“No comparing yourself to evil” fits the context of verse 38, the bible quote Jesus just made. Resisting an evildoer instead fits the context of the traditional interpretation of the next verses—the interpretation I take issue with.

Inviting further abuse?

Matthew 5.39 KWL
39B “Instead, whoever punches you on the right side of your jaw: Turn from them all the more.”

I’ve heard preachers point out more than once: A right-handed person is gonna punch, or slap, the left side of your face. The only way otherwise is if they backhand you. For some reason, preachers assume that’s worse than getting hit or punched any other way. More degrading; more insulting. Fact is, people tend to be outraged when they’re hit in the face, no matter how you hit ’em.

Strépson aftó kai tin állin tends to be rendered “turn to them the other cheek also.” (NIV) The word for cheek or jaw, siagón, isn’t in there; interpreters figure it’s what’s meant by the pronoun állin/“other[wise].” But literally it’s translated “Turn from them and the other.” Turn both cheeks away.

What about the similar verse in Luke? Same deal. “Submit and the other.” Could be interpreted “submit also the other,” meaning the other side of your jaw, and this is why people figure it means letting ’em strike your other cheek. But that’s not consistent with the rest of the verse, where Jesus says don’t stop ’em when they want to take your robe and tunic. It’s not, as Matthew gets translated, “if they take your tunic, give your robe.” In Luke they demand both. And in Matthew, arguably they demand both too.

Bear in mind: When someone back then was suing your pants off (yes, that’s just our present-day saying; people didn’t wear pants back then) it didn’t mean they literally wanted your pants. They wanted their money. If you had no money, and all you had was the tunic on your back, they’d take that—as collateral, till you got ’em the money.

Now, giving them your robe as well: That makes no sense. Then you’d be naked. Maybe you’d have a loincloth, but you really couldn’t go to work to make the money to get your collateral back. And the reason people would accept your tunic in collateral was because it wasn’t practical to take your robe. Y’see, the Law required creditors to give the robe back every night at sundown, so they’d have something to sleep in. Dt 24.12-13 Giving “your coat as well” (NIV) was therefore a needlessly overdramatic act on your part. You know, hypocrisy.

Imátion is usually translated “robe.” But it’s also the generic word for “clothing.” So that’s how I translated it:

Matthew 5.40 KWL
“To those who want you judged, to take your tunic: Forgive them, and let go of your clothing.”

Jesus simply reiterates, “They want your tunic? Give ’em your clothing. Don’t fight it.”

Why do people assume Jesus means giving people more than what they ask for? ’Cause of verse 41, going the extra mile.

Matthew 5.41 KWL
“Whoever drafts you to carry their gear one mile, go with them two.”

Under Roman law, a Roman soldier had the right to draft non-Romans to carry their gear for 1,000 paces. (Mille/“thousand” is where we get mile—even though it’s now more than 1,000 feet.) Problem is, Romans would cheat. They’d miscount the paces. Or, once you did your thousand and put down their gear, they’d immediately draft you again for another mile.

But rather than embrace the hurt feelings and outrage—“Hey, I’m done with my service!”—Jesus instructs us to quit thinking, “What’s the least I have to do before I’m done?” and just fulfill the whole obligation. If you have to carry a burden a few more steps, don’t pile a grudge on top of it. You’ll be carrying the grudge long after you put down the other burden.

Anyway, Christians read that extra-obligation idea back into the previous verses. And they don’t properly belong there. If someone sues your pants off, you do owe the money, so accept your circumstances. If someone punches your jaw, don’t escalate things; again, accept your circumstances. If a Roman makes you walk 1,300 paces, that’s annoying, but don’t let it eat you up inside; accept your circumstances.

None of this is about inviting extra abuse upon ourselves. It’s about the fact life will sometimes suck. Stop looking to balance the score. Stop seeking karma or reciprocity, whether it’s merited or not. Accept the circumstances, embrace serenity, and get on with your life.

Fairness, justice, and grace.

I’ve heard this preached many times: “The word ‘fairness’ isn’t in the bible. Go ahead and look. You won’t find it.”

Well no, not in the KJV or NKJV. But better not give ’em an ESV or NASB (appears twice), or the GNT (four times), or NLT (seven times), or NET (14 times). See, it all depends on the translation. The specific word might not be found in your bible. The concept is definitely there. It tends to be translated “justice.” You did know “fair” and “just” are synonyms, right?

But like karma, westerners have redefined justice. In our system, it no longer means “fair or reciprocal behavior”—like eye for eye, tooth for tooth. When people say they “want justice,” what they now mean is they wanna see people get what they deserve… in the negative sense. Someone did ’em wrong, and they want the wrongdoer punished.

More accurately they want revenge. Since revenge isn’t allowed under our laws, they’ll settle for the next best thing: “Justice.” Meaning a great big fine, prison, or the death penalty. Given the option, they’d prefer the death penalty. But that’s what “justice” has become in our culture: Fair punishment.

Justice means more than that in the scriptures. ’Cause God wants us to be fair with one another. When we see things going wrong, he wants us to make things right. He’s more pleased with that, than when we offer him sacrifices. Pr 21.3 What more does he want of us than to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God? Mc 6.8

I bring up justice and fairness ’cause I’m trying to explain the cultural baseline which Jesus was starting from. Our culture does karma, which is kinda like justice. But unlike the scriptures, we expect the universe to make things right. We expect God to punish evildoers, reward the righteous, or help the needy. Not us; that’s not our job. We’re fellow recipients of karmic payouts.

Just goes to show how disconnected we are from God.

Meanwhile Jesus is trying to teach grace. If someone punches you, don’t punch back. If someone penalizes you, don’t try to get out of it. If someone obligates you, don’t perform the bare minimum. If people ask your help, don’t drive ’em off. You know, like Moses said in the Law:

Deuteronomy 15.7-11 KWL
7 “If there’s a needy person among you—one of your brothers, at one of your gates
in your land which your LORD God gives you,
don’t close your mind. Don’t shut your hand to your needy brother.
8 Open, open your hand to him. Promise, promise whatever he needs, whatever he lacks.
9 Watch yourself, lest there’s this useless thought in your mind,
saying, “Sabbath year is near—the year debts are canceled,”
and you eye your needy brother warily, and won’t give to him.
He’ll call to the LORD against you. It’s a sin for you.
10 Give, give to him. Don’t do evil in your mind in giving to him.
For this reason, your LORD God blesses all your work, all your hand creates.
11 There will never stop being needy people in the land. Therefore I command you,
saying: Open, open your hand to your brother, to your poor, to your needy, in your land.”

This attitude flies in the face of popular culture. Including popular Christian culture. Plenty of Christians will likewise insist we should offer the needy “a hand up, not a handout.” Plenty of people—both in Jesus’s day and now—take advantage of generosity, and accept handouts regardless of their own ability to provide for themselves. They milk the system. Jesus knows this. Knew this when he taught us to give to those who ask of us. Yeah, they might scam us. Even so. Fight your tendency to want to get your own back. Put others first. Do for them. Be generous. Even if it’s “unfair.”

It’s a hard command for a lot of Christians. One we tend to ignore: Look at all the Christians who are insistent, even proud, that we stand up for our rights, and stop people from taking advantage of us. In American culture it’s considered shameful to let someone have the advantage over us. Yet Jesus orders us to let ’em.

Yes, we have rights. No, it’s not fair when others exploit us, or take from us. Karma fans expect when we’re mistreated this way, the universe will step in and rectify things. When they’re Christians, they’ll even preach it: “Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek because, at the End, that cheek-slapper will get his. Jesus’ll see to it.” In fact Jesus said no such thing. In fact Jesus wants the opposite: He wants that cheek-slapper to repent, turn to him, be saved, and beg forgiveness. Jesus wants that cheek-slapper to get away with it, and enter his kingdom.

Same as you. And me. And everyone. How many cheeks—literal or figurative—have we slapped? And Jesus wants us all to get away with it. That’s what grace means.

Jesus wants his followers to demonstrate this grace. Yeah, we can try to make things equitable, balance things out, or get even. Might feel really good about ourselves for doing so. Might feel great satisfaction. But he wants us to be bigger people than that. Let it go. Forgive, in favor of people who need saving. Be merciful instead of “fair.” Seek to help the needy instead of seeking “justice.” Show ’em grace instead of righteous anger.

It’s why Jesus caps off this teaching, in Luke, with the “golden rule”: Do as you’d like done to you. Lk 6.31 You want God to show you grace and mercy when Jesus takes his glorious throne? Show grace and mercy to others. You want people to give you the benefit of the doubt? Go and do likewise.

Be generous. Not because they’ll then owe you, but because it’s how our Father works. It’s how the kingdom works—and you wanna be ready for it, right?