Franciscan Spirit Blog

Lent with Richard Rohr: Rewards and Punishments Are Inherent

Friday of the First Week of Lent | Readings: Ezekiel 18:21–28; Matthew 5:20–26


Often Christians dismissed the Eastern notion of karma as something pagan, fatalistic, or unbiblical. Actually, we said the same thing, but just in different ways, and both of today’s readings are good examples of our different ways. The rather universal notion of karma is simply saying that “what goes around comes around.” Nothing just goes away in the world of spirit, but reaps its own good fruit, or eventually bears the seed of its own destruction. Just wait long enough, and it is always true.

The prophet Ezekiel is making just such an advance in sixth-century-BC Jewish thinking here. He moves the whole notion of rewards and punishments to the now and to the individual level. Up to this point, human consciousness largely thought in terms of collective retribution or victory. The individual did not matter that much. So this is a major move forward in our understanding of the importance of each human soul—now. Ezekiel is saying loudly and strongly that your human life matters, your personal decisions and choices do define you. You have worth. Both individually and now! This gives a necessary significance, dignity, and urgency to the whole human journey.

Then Jesus, surely familiar with Ezekiel, spells out the same notion of inherent reward and punishment for his own contemporaries. Yet he goes even one step further and now localizes the core problem inside of the human person! Human consciousness is ready to be invited by him beyond mere external observance of rights and wrongs to inner attitudes, motivations, judgments, and opinions. If those are wrong or negative now, you are already in “Gehenna” (the perpetually burning garbage dump outside the Dung Gate of Jerusalem), and if you can “exceed the holiness of the scribes and Pharisees,” you will be in “the kingdom of God”—now—and also later. We must not hear such readings as these as either a threat or a prize but rather as an invitation to human consciousness and the dignity of free will.


“If a wicked person turns away from their evil and does what is right and just, they will surely live, they shall not die. None of the crimes they committed will be held against them.” —Ezekiel 18:21

“You have heard the commandment imposed on your forefathers, ‘You shall not commit murder, and every murderer shall be liable to judgment.’ What I say to you is: everyone who even grows angry with his brother or sister shall be liable to judgment. . . and whoever holds him or her in that contempt, risks the fires of Gehenna.” —Matthew 5:21–22


“Creator God, could it be true that you give me my human dignity and significance by asking so much of me? Do you respect me so much to hope that I could actually be like you?”

¡Haga clic aquí para ver la traducción en español!

Donate to Franciscan Media!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign Up for Our Daily Newsletter​

Includes Saint of the Day, Minute Meditations, and Pause + Pray.