You know the Hindu concept of Karma? One definition goes like this: Karma is “A consequence or “fruit of action” (karmaphala) or “after effect” (uttaraphala), which sooner or later returns upon the doer. What we sow, we shall reap in this or future lives. Selfish, hateful acts (papakarma or kukarma) will bring suffering. Benevolent actions (punyakarma or sukarma) will bring loving reactions.
Karma is a neutral, self-perpetuating law of the inner cosmos, much as gravity is an impersonal law of the outer cosmos. In fact, it has been said that gravity is a small, external expression of the greater law of karma.”
Now, Christians and Jews don’t believe in reincarnation but the concept of sowing and reaping we find in Scripture itself. Among some of Jesus’ contemporaries there was a basic assumption: if you are blessed in this life it must be because of something you have done. Riches were a sign of God’s blessings and suffering of his displeasure. You remember the disciples asking about a blind man that Jesus was about to heal: ‘Who sinned, this man or his parents that made him blind?’
Which is why Jesus’ parable today would have challenged many of his listeners’ assumptions. Reaping and sowing seems to have gone in reverse. Even the whole idea of a Rich man in hell would have caused some to raise their eyebrows.
The point of the parable is straightforward—show compassion in this life for in the Kingdom there is a great reversal. Being poor does not automatically make one righteous, but the soil of a poor person’s heart is often more hospitable to God. Conversely, those who are rich—their hearts are less hospitable to God and less hospitable to others.
In life the rich man ate from a bountiful table—not even aware that Lazarus was begging nearby with dogs licking his sores. Conversely, in the Kingdom, Lazarus eats at Abraham’s table unaware of the rich man’s plight.
Abraham tells the rich man, “Son, (by the way, he speaks the way the father spoke to the older son in the parable of the prodigal son) remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.”
The great reversal—something that would have made Jesus’ hearers scratch their heads—a sowing and reaping turned on its head.
Jesus is not saying that doing good things across your lifetime will outweigh bad. What Jesus is dealing with is the condition of the rich man. He has is a condition of the heart—a condition of the soul. A condition of hospitality or a spirit that is inhospitable.
In case you haven’t guessed, today’s Benedictine principle is ‘hospitality.’ The Rule of Benedict, of course, deals with those who are received in the monastery. He says:
“Any guest…should be received just as we would receive Christ himself…Guests should always be treated with respectful deference. Those attending them both on arrival and departure should show this by a bow of the head or even a full prostration on the grounds which will leave no doubt that it is indeed Christ who is received and venerated in them…The greatest care should be taken to give a warm reception to the poor and to pilgrims, because it is in them above all others that Christ is welcomed.” (Rule Chapter 53)
Great principles from Benedict—the stranger is someone who ought to be reverenced by a bow or prostration. Ultimate respect.
Jesus is saying in his parable that the one who lies in the street may soon be a prince in the kingdom of heaven—carried by the angels themselves! Therefore, welcome the poor.
Kathleen Norris, a Benedictine lay person (called an oblate), wrote that the ‘heart of Christianity is hospitality.’ Someone read her words wrote to her and said, ‘no you should have said that the Center of the Christian Church is fear.’
Why would someone say such a thing?
Now I haven’t heard a ‘fire and brimstone’ sermon for decades, though I hear they are still being preached somewhere in America. But I know that even folks who are interested in coming to church find the whole thing scary. There is a language to learn and a culture to engage.
People hope to find among us a spirit of hospitality. That spirit of hospitality we cannot fake. Those who have it in the church also have it outside the church.
Sometimes we feel inadequate, but as Joan Chittister says, ‘[we are] to pour ourselves out for the other, to give ourselves away, to provide the staples of life, both material and spiritual for one another. The question is not whether what we have to give is sufficient for the situation or not. The question is simply whether or not we have anything to give. That’s what hospitality is all about. Not abundance and not totality. Just sharing. Real sharing.’
Ask yourself—who is welcome in our church? Who is not? Why not? Who is welcome at your table? Who is not? Why not?
Of course how you answer the question shows a condition of the heart. It says something about how you view others.
But it should also say something about how you view your church. Is it a refuge for the lost? Or, is it just any other public place?
And of course it says something about how hospitable our hearts are when we reject others and keep them from our own table.
To love the stranger is not just Christian duty, it is to bring richness to our own lives.
Chittister again says,
“we must continue to beg the stranger to come into our lives because in the stranger may come the only honesty and insight we can get into our plastic worlds…to become whole ourselves we must learn to let the other in, if for no other reason than to stretch or own vision, to take responsibility for the world by giving to it out of our own abundance, to make the world safe by guarding its people ourselves.”
We are less when our hearts are inhospitable…Catherine Doherty said, “every human face is an icon of Christ, discovered by a prayerful person.
In Christ there is no Karma. We are not received by Christ for our merit. Neither do we receive (or refuse to receive) others based on merit. What we receive, we freely give.
I repeat again Benedict’s words:
“Any guest…should be received just as we would receive Christ himself…Guests should always be treated with respectful deference. Those attending them both on arrival and departure should show this by a bow of the head or even a full prostration on the grounds which will leave no doubt that it is indeed Christ who is received and venerated in them.”
I close with the words of Thomas Ken:
“O God, make the door of this house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship; narrow enough to shut out all envy pride and strife, Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling block to children nor straying feet, but rugged and strong enough to turn back the tempter’s power. God make the door of this house the gateway to thine eternal kingdom.
Thomas Ken (1637-1711)
Inscription on St. Stephen’s Church: Walbrook, London