Retribution unfulfilled?Sermon passage: (Ecclesiastes 8:10-17) Spoken on: October 2, 2016
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Ecclesiastes
Speaker: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
Date: 25th Sept 2016
Title: Retribution unfulfilled? 时辰未到？
Ecclesiastes 8: 10 Then too, I saw the wicked buried—those who used to come and go from the holy place and forgotten in the city where they did this. This too is meaningless.
11 When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, people’s hearts are filled with schemes to do wrong. 12 Although a wicked person who commits a hundred crimes may live a long time, I know that it will go better with those who fear God, who are reverent before him. 13 Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow.
14 There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. 15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.
16 When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth—people getting no sleep day or night— 17 then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.
Most of the reflections in Ecclesiastes are related to the Preacher’s actual observations in life. Today’s reflection is about 2 observations of some wicked people. The first observation in verse 10 is about the wicked who died and were buried. The Preacher remembered that they had frequented the Temple. And now whatever they did was forgotten. This is vanity. But you may wonder, isn’t being forgotten something negative? So it is a good thing that at their deaths they were forgotten right? Not true. The correct expectation is for the wicked to be punished by the Temple courts where they made their vows before God, and hopefully their works were destroyed (5:6) and they were struck dead in the Temple, and upon their death, their evil deeds were remembered forever. Oh, how we long to deep fry them like youtiao (fried fritters) as revenge for their evil deeds. So it is vanity that the wicked got away scot free with their wickedness in their life and their evil deeds were also forgotten after they died. The second observation is in verse 14, where the Preacher said: There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. And so the Preachers lamented, “This too, I say, is meaningless.”
Today, we want to talk about how in life, sometimes the wicked do not get what they deserve. It does not sit right with us, and also with the Preacher. I wonder if this has got to do with our Chinese roots. There is a Chinese saying: 善有善报，恶有恶报 (there will be good returns for good deeds, and bad returns for bad). Some of us may feel that this is the way the world should be. Actually, this saying comes from Buddhism, from one of the top ten disciples of Buddha佛祖, called MuLian. One day, Buddha was giving MuLian a pop quiz.
云何目连行有报乎。(“Explain, MuLian. Do deeds have returns?”)
目连白佛言。世尊。行有报也。(MuLian replied Buddha, “Deeds have returns.”)
又问目连。何者是行报耶。(Asking again, “Who or what are the returns?”)
目连白佛言。随其缘对。善有善报，恶有恶报。(MuLian replied Buddha, “Depends on fate. Good will have good returns, Bad will have bad returns.”)
MuLian was talking about Karma: that every deed will have its own returns业, and the main cause of those returns are the deeds themselves. It is like every deed or thought that we have, will create a karmic effect 业力that will lead to things happening, and the cycle goes on and on.
Let me illustrate with a popular Chinese folk story called MuLian saved his mother 目连救母. MuLian was famous for being神通第一, meaning that he had the strongest clairvoyant psychic power out of all the disciples. Using his superpower, he managed to locate his late mother. She was stuck in the afterlife as a hungry ghost, because she was evil when she was alive. So you see, her evil deeds in life created karmic effects that had results for her afterlife. Using his 神通powers, MuLian could deliver food to her. But when he tried to feed her, the food turned into ashes when it reached her lips. He then asked Buddha for advice. Buddha explained that his 神通 powers couldn’t defeat karma业力 . So how did MuLian save his mother?
This is where it gets rather tricky. You see, this started as a Hindu story that got transported and translated into a Buddhist story in China. The Hindu version has MuLian doing special rites and teachings for the mother. In the Buddhist version, all the LuoHans got involved to reincarnate her. Then the Taoists took it and made it even more exciting with big fights and hells gates crashing.  All I can conclude from the ending is, eventually MuLian’s mother was saved from being a hungry ghost, but that is also why we ended up with the annual hungry ghost festival中元节，俗称鬼节.
This story demonstrates the power of karma. Starting from Hinduism, and then in all the related religions such as Buddhism, Karma is a fundamental doctrine. And as we can observe from the story of MuLian’s mother, this spiritual force or effect can be so powerful, it extends even to the afterlife and reincarnation, and even Buddha or Mulian could not overcome it alone. Only good karma can negate bad karma. This is one of their key beliefs and answer to the problem of wickedness. There will be a spiritual effect that comes with every deed, speech or thought, and if not in this lifetime, then it will be manifested in the next incarnation and so on.
What about our Christian faith? Do we believe in Karma? It should be obvious that we do not believe in reincarnations. Unlike the Catholics, we protestants also don’t believe that there is this treasury of merits  that we can tap on using indulgences, which sounds to me a little like good karma to negate bad karma. But the key question is: do the deeds themselves have karmic effects? We may have come across many of the biblical teachings just like this one in Proverbs 2: 20 Thus you will walk in the ways of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous. 21 For the upright will live in the land, and the blameless will remain in it; 22 but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the unfaithful will be torn from it. Sounds similar to our Chinese saying善有善报，恶有恶报, doesn’t it? But is it really the same? I would argue that it is actually quite different.
Our starting point in understanding the world is that our God is the God of Creation. And so our world was created with light, order and abundance. What we have just read in Proverbs 2 is that with wisdom you can live well, and vice versa. “The First Testament often manifests a confidence that humanity can articulate this wisdom and live by it. Life is intelligible.” When we live according to this wisdom, we continue the co-creation of light, order and abundance in this world. My personal opinion on Karma is this: it is not that our deeds or thoughts have any karmic effects that will result in good or bad returns. It doesn’t have to be spiritual or mysterious in nature. When we were sharing on Deuteronomy in 2013, it is clear from God’s laws, how to live in a community so that everybody can have a better life. There is a way things work in this world. I do not know if there is such a thing as a Karma force, but I feel that kind of speculation is unnecessary. God shows us how to live well, and we do it because we can observe the good it produces.
The second and equally important point about the God of Creation is that he not only created the world with his will, he also sustains the world with his will. This means that God intervenes when things go wrong, and rewards when things go right. This means that more often than not, the returns don’t come from the deeds themselves, they come from God. We have faith in the God of justice and we believe judgment belongs to God. I repeat: he is the cause of the returns, it does not rest ultimately on the karmic effects from the deeds.
From the Old Testament: Ecclesiastes 12: 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
From the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 5: 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
Let me just bring this part of the sharing to a small conclusion. I do not know if there is really Karma in this world. It has some similarities and it is actually different from our Christian faith. We believe that God created this world with his own good will. And understanding, respecting and living by God’s will is Wisdom. We also believe that God has the final authority in this world. He continues his act of creation in his judgment and restoration even until this day. In short, it is God running the show, not the effects of Karma.
But that is also exactly the topic for today. If God is the God of creation, then why are the wicked seemingly not getting what they deserve? Not only that, because the retribution is not obvious or fast enough, it leads to more wickedness. 11 When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, people’s hearts are filled with schemes to do wrong. I think this is a reasonable query. If karma is not responsible, then God must be responsible. What is the answer to that? When is God dealing with the evil? Throughout the Psalms, many have asked God that question.
They asked that in Malachi:
Malachi 2: 17 You have wearied the Lord with your words. “How have we wearied him?” you ask.
By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”
Malachi 3: “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.
5 “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.
Sometimes you keep asking God, “Where are you?” And the answer is: “Here I come!”
They asked the same question in 2 Peter:
2 Peter 3: 3 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
Sometimes you keep asking God, “Where are you?” And the answer is: “Not Yet! Just to give you another chance”
But most of the time, the answer and the conclusion are the same like today’s passage: 16 When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth—people getting no sleep day or night— 17 then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.
In short: I don’t know. The Preacher tried to understand it, and he lost sleep over it, but still it makes no sense. Why did the wicked not get what they deserve? I don’t know. I wish I have a clever answer, but I think it is worse to pretend to be like “the wise who claim to know” but really don’t. Some will say, “Don’t worry, the wicked will have bad karma, and they will be punished in their afterlife.” But in my honest opinion, they really don’t know. Let’s be honest like the Preacher.
Even though the Preacher admitted that he could not understand what was going on, why the wicked were not punished, it doesn’t mean he didn’t know how to live well. The word “good” is repeated 3 times in our passage today, and I hope that can be your take home message for this issue.
First, the “not good”: 13 Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow.
Second, the good: 12 Although a wicked person who commits a hundred crimes may live a long time, I know that it will go better with those who fear God, who are reverent before him.
Lastly, the best: 15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.
It is a reality that we can observe that sometimes the wicked are not punished and we do not understand why. The “not good” is to conclude, “since I can get away with it, let me do wicked things too”. I don’t know if they will have a long life or not, but surely they will not have “good” that comes from God. The “good” is to decide, “no matter what, I’ll fear God and live a life of wisdom.” Perhaps, it is only a statement the Preacher says by faith, but he believes “good” will come to these people.
Finally, we must focus on the “best”. And the recommendation, after all the deliberations of the preacher, is to just enjoy the moment of toil and the pleasures that come with that moment. Maybe there is Karma, maybe there isn’t, why should we be so hard up about it? Leave the ultimate judgment to God. If we live righteously for good returns, and stay away from evil to prevent bad returns, we will get frustrated when reality sometimes proves the opposite. But are good returns really the motivation to live well? Is punishment the only thing stopping you from wickedness? Why not live well for its own sake, and enjoy the moment of living well? This is the “best”. The honest truth is that we cannot claim to “know” the returns or the future. We can only accept what we can observe in this lifetime. We avoid the “not good” and choose the “good” for the fear of the Lord. But above all, living well and wisely is its own reward.
 “Youtiao is a pair of lightly salted, deep fried dough strip commonly found in most Chinatowns around the world. Its orgin lies in a popular protest against the unjust murder of a loyal Song dynasty general, Yue Fei (岳飞). Qin Hui and his wife, Lady Wang, then fabricated charges against Yue Fei leading to his execution at the age of 39. The public had no avenue to protest against the powerful Prime Minister. In retaliation, they began joining two dough strips symbolizing Qin Hui and Lady Wang and deep-frying them in hot oil.” Quoted from: http://www.chinatownology.com/you_tiao_and_yue_fei.html
For original text《缨络经·有行无行品》 : http://sutra.goodweb.cn/kgin/kgin16/656/656-08.htm
Translated as 业力https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%A5%AD
 John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology v. 2, p 576
 See 2013 sermon series on Deuteronomy: