Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Christian Ethic vs. Karma

The story of Jacob and Esau is a fascinating tale and yet at the same time not very surprising. Anyone that has a brother or has seen brothers in action knows that the potential for conflict is great. As a bit of self-disclosure I must admit that my brother and I have had a pretty good relationship all things considered. Neither one of us–as far as I know–has tried to steal or trick the other out of their birthright or blessing as Jacob did to Esau. Nor has either of us–again I am assuming here–has plotted to kill the other as Esau did with Jacob.

But there has been some sibling rivalry. For example I was a better student in school while he was always the superior athlete. Jacob and Esau's rivalry far surpassed that. After Jacob cheated Esau out of Isaac's birthright and blessing Jacob took off to find a wife...and escape from Esau's murder plot.

Jacob went back to the "old country" to find a wife because his parents decided that they didn't want a Hittite or Canaanite for a daughter-in-law. Esau overheard the "Don't marry one of those Canaanite women" comment from his father. Unfortunately for Esau he already had two Hittite wives.

Talk about things not going right. Esau is the older brother and has lost all of the privileges that go with being the older brother and he finds out that his parent's don't approve of his wives.

So what does Esau do?

He marries a third woman who is not a Canaanite in order to try and make amends.

Not that divorcing his wives would have been the right thing to do, but Esau tried to make things better by putting a patch on to his old mistakes. And I think that we can often do the same thing.

We can fall into the trap of functioning under an ethic of karma rather than a Christian ethic which is an ethic of righteousness and grace. An ethic of karma is when we try and amend for our past mistakes by doing more good things. We are trying to balance out the scales. It is as if we say to ourselves, "Well I didn't get to church this Sunday so I will make sure that I say an extra prayer, put a few extra dollars in the offering and go to the midweek service. That will more than make up for missing church." And that may soothe our soul in our own eyes and maybe even in the eyes of others.

But that is not how it works in God's eyes.

In a Christian ethic when we make a mistake we ask for forgiveness and God forgives our mistake. That is the grace part. We don't get the forgiveness because we have made up for it in some way. No, God forgives us not because we deserve it but because he wants to forgive us. But there is another part to a Christian ethic. There is a righteousness part as well. After we make our mistakes we do try and right any wrongs that we have committed but more importantly we try and not make those same mistakes again. We try and live a righteous life not by simply adding a patch onto our old mistakes but by trying to avoid them all together.

In Esau's case marrying a non-Canaanite woman (or even divorcing his Hittite wives) does not make his relationship with his parents or his brother right. What ends up making Esau's relationship right with Jacob is when the two of them meet up again many years later is that Esau puts the past behind them.

Further Reading
The story of Jacob and Esau can be found in Genesis 25:19-36:43

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