Time after Pentecost - Lectionary 10
1 Kings 17:17-24
I distinctly remember the day in Grade Eight when my class's math teacher, Mr. Mason, taught us how to multiply integers, and how to remember what combination of positives and negatives ended in what. He started with two plus signs on the board ( + x + = ?) and said, "When something good happens to a good person, we're happy." ( + x + = + ) Then he wrote two minus signs on the board ( - x - = ? ) and said, "When something bad happens to a bad person, we're happy." ( - x - = + ) Then he wrote a plus and a minus ( + x - = ?) and said, "When something good happens to a bad person, we're sad." ( + x - = - ) And lastly he wrote a minus sign and then a plus sign ( - x + = ?) and said, "When something bad happens to a good person, we're sad." ( - x + = -) Although to be honest, I've never found multiplying integers to be particularly helpful in my line of work, I've certainly never forgotten his lesson.
I think the reason his lesson was so memorable is because of the way it echoes how we think the world operates. When something good happens to someone who's generally known to be a good person, the usual response is, "Oh, how nice, I'm sure they deserved it." And when something bad happens to someone who's kind of a jerk to everyone, we tend to gleefully think, "I guess they had it coming." That is to say, we tend to think that good things rightfully happen to people who are good, and bad things rightfully happen to people who are bad.
Well, today in our readings we hear about two widows, and the first widow, from the Old Testament, who was from Zarephath, certainly seemed to think that's the way the world operated. When her son became deathly ill, she thought that God was punishing her for something, for some sin or another that she had committed. "You have come to bring my sin to remembrance," she cried to Elijah, "and to cause the death of my son" It's pretty certain that she already felt as if she had done something wrong since she was a widow, and people tended to believe that widowhood was the result of some sin or another, so it's no surprise that she thought her son's illness was God's crowning punishment for whatever it was she had done - in her case, she probably thought it was due to her not worshipping God. She wasn't an Israelite, after all, so of course God wouldn't hesitate to afflict her son with illness and take him away from her. She was a bad person, she thought, and thus deserving of bad things.
We all tend to believe this - that something good happens because of something good we've done, and that something bad happens because of something bad we've done. Karma, we call it, in the pop cultural sense. But why? Why do we believe that this is the way things work?
Well, part of the reason is because there are so many stories in our Bible where that seems to be the case. Just before our reading today, Elijah meets the widow of Zarephath for the first time. Because he asks, she gives him the what was to be her and her son's last meal, and is rewarded with a neverending supply of flour and oil that she and her son live on for the next few years. So clearly, the widow has experienced, and we have seen, that in this case God does reward good deeds with more good fortune. There are other Bible stories of God rewarding good and punishing bad. The Bible tells us that God saved Noah because he was righteous, and wiped out everyone else because they were wicked. The Bible tells us that God saved the Israelites from foreign invasions while they remained faithful worshippers, but allowed them to be invaded when the Israelites turned away from their faith. With stories like these, it's no wonder that what we think God makes the same connections between good things and good people, and bad things and bad people that we do.
And then, of course, there's our experience in the real world. Maybe it's because we get it from others, but even we tend to conform to the good deserves good, bad deserves bad model. It's well-known that people tend to help out individuals that already seem to have everything together and that we treat poorly people whom we think deserve it. I know that, for instance, when I'm driving on the road, and I see someone speed up the right-hand lane on the 401 and bully their way past other cars, I don't let them into the space in front of me or give them room to pass me. And, if I'm being a good driver, and obeying the speed limit, and allowing people in front of me, and showing my signal to change lanes, then I expect that people will let me into their lane if I need it, and I get mad when they don't. I act and expect others to act under the same mathematical principles that good goes with good and bad goes with bad. And I don't think I'm alone in my expectations - we all tend to work that way.
So it's no surprise that when it comes to how God acts in the world, we tend to think God works by the same principle: that God will cause good things to happen to good people, and bad things to happen to bad people. "Good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell," sums up what we generally believe about how God works. And so we work as hard as we can at being good, with the hope that that good will be returned to us. We do our best to ensure that when God checks our balance sheets, we will be solidly in the positive column, with positive things waiting to happen to us in order to complete the equation.
Now, I'm going to explain why this way of thinking is incorrect in a moment, but first I have to say that this way of thinking is a sin. There's one simple reason for this. If we think that our good behaviour causes God to reward us with good things, or that our bad behaviour causes God to punish us with bad things, who are we making the subject of our thought? That is, whose behaviour is controlling whose? In this scenario, our behaviour ends up controlling God. If we think that doing good causes God to reward us with good things, then that means that we think that our good behaviour is the centre, is the focus of everything, is the deciding factor for God's actions. Likewise, if we think that doing bad causes God to punish us with bad things, then we're still thinking that our behaviour, bad in this case, influences God's behaviour towards us. And this is a sin. To think that our behaviour governs God's actions, to put our activities and intentions at the centre of God's world is a sin. "You shall have no other gods before me," says the First Commandment. "You are to fear, love, and trust only God," is how Luther explains it in the Small Catechism. Meaning we are not to make our own actions God - we are not to trust in or fear that our good or bad actions will change the way God relates to us. Only God can change the way God relates to us, only God can decide whether or not our actions are deserving of reward or punishment, only God can decide whether or not to bestow good or bad on us.
Fortunately for us, God bestows good. Which brings me to why our previous way of thinking about good and bad is not only a sin, but it's just incorrect. "Give us this day our daily bread," we pray in the Lord's Prayer. "God does this without our prayer to good and evil alike," is how Luther explains it in the Small Catechism. God gives good things, bestows good gifts, on people who are good, on people who are bad, on people who are indifferent. God does this because of the steadfast, neverending love that God has for God's people. For us. For you. God healed the widow of Zarephath's son, despite the fact that she was not one of God's followers. Jesus resurrected the widow of Nain's son, without knowing whether or not she believed in him. God gives you sunshine and rain, gave life to your bodies, forgives your sins, even when you commit the sin of thinking that your actions determine God's, all regardless of whether you are good or bad,.
That's not to say that we should stop doing good things for people. Even though God might not operate under the same math as us, other people do, and doing good makes the world a better place. It does nothing for how God sees us, but we interact with hundreds of people in our lifetime, in addition to God, so good behaviour naturally goes a long way here on earth. It's just that we shouldn't fool ourselves into believing that our behaviour, good or bad, affects how God treats us, that it affects God's orientation of steadfast, neverending love towards us.
In the end, despite how memorable my math teacher's lesson was, God's math is different from ours. In God's math, when good things happen, to good or bad people, God is happy. And when bad things happen, to good or bad people, God is sad. Karma isn't a Christian concept. Jesus Christ died for us "while we were yet sinners," is what we confess. This wonderful good thing happened to us while we were bad, and it made God happy. So, this coming week, and through the summer, may God continue to bless you with all good things, whether you have been good or bad. Thanks be to God. Amen.