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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Thomas's empty jar and the empire of God


Jesus said: "The kingdom is like a certain woman who was carrying a [jar] full of meal. While she was walking [on the] road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke and the meal emptied out behind her [on] the road. She did not realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house, she set the jar down and found it empty". (97)


There is no question that that Gospel of Thomas isn’t easy - there are incomprehensible passages in it and statements that one can hardly imagine Jesus saying. But a good part of the gospel consists in wisdom sayings and parables that have direct parallels in the synoptics. Some of these are in pristine condition; that is, they seem to have been written down in parabolic form before the early church turned them into allegories. The difference is vital: parables open up the world to the listener - they “talk around” an image or a situation in a way that makes us see something we didn’t see before, or puts us into a position where we have to make a judgment we’d rather not make, or has us make a decision that we see was false and is overturned by further information. An allegory, on the other hand, is a closed world, in which everything within the story stands for something else, and once we have understood the symbolic framework of the story, it can’t reveal much new to us unless or until we change. This is very easy to see with the parable of the sower and the seed. Remember that in the gospel of St. Matthew, for instance, the sower goes out, and sows his seed all over the place, the seed falls on all kinds of ground. Then Jesus proceeds to say who the sower is, what the seed is, and what kinds of people the ground represents, and so forth. In the gospel of St. Thomas, there is no such explanation, the parable stands on its own, much as it must have done with those first hearers in the first century CE.

It is for this reason (and I’m sure there are others, including its apparent antiquity) that the Gospel of Thomas is so important to Scripture scholars. Among the little parables that emerges from the gospel is the one quoted at the top of this entry, and it just struck me this morning as I read it how much it has in it, what it holds together about Jesus' proclamation of the nearness of the empire of God, and what that empire is like. We recall that it is to introduce the disciples to this radically new, “not of this world” empire of God that Jesus resorted to parables. He had to teach us to think outside the box, to foil our own expectations, and begin to see with eyes that see divine light. 

So, here are a few thoughts that emerged for me as I read the parable of the empty jar from the Gospel of Thomas. This, by the way, was a unanimous “red” vote by the Jesus Seminar. This means that, in this prestigious (if fairly like-minded) group of scripture scholars, the consensus was that the parable is directly from Jesus with little or no redaction by the evangelist.


  1. The empire of God is known by loss. Somehow, this is allied with the beatitudes in my mind: “Macarios (Fortunate or blessed or happy) are the poor, theirs is the empire of God.” It seems to be that in the state of loss or emptiness that recognition of God’s dominion occurs. We tend to think that fullness, wealth, health, power are signs of God’s blessing, but that is not the case. This is the mistake the disciples make over and over again, most obviously in Mark, but in all the gospels including John. God’s rule is not like those of this world. It’s primary analog, as close as we can say, is agape, self-emptying love.
  2. Related to this, the empire of God begins to reveal itself on the journey, when one is “away from home.” Home is the place where we are comfortable in our surroundings, where the status quo is maintained, where wealth and power and comfort are values to be sought. But leaving home, going on a journey, is to be open to new experiences. Anyone who has traveled abroad as a young person especially remembers her first experience almost as a religious one, a sense of connection with the unknown that is the purest kind of revelation. Arriving back “home,” we discover we’ve been “had” - the reign of God is already here for us.
  3. The empire of God is not a thing to be possessed, but its chief characteristic may be emptiness. We may not have a better way of describing complete self-gift, even if we could manage to do it with God’s help. Could this be some insight into San Juan de la Cruz’s “dark night of the soul,” the cry of Jesus from the cross, or the mystical darkness and alienation of Thomas Merton and Mother Teresa? God must be beyond our possession, or at least, whatever we imagine our possession of God to be. Still, we are made for God’s love, so both the being-drawn and sense of belonging must be there in the mix, somehow!
  4. The empire of God happens when we’re not looking, and in unexpected ways. This is also the meaning at the heart of some of the other parables in what was probably their original form: the thief in the night, the leaven, and the mustard seed, for instance. In a way, it’s the primary subject of all the parables. It’s because the dominion of God happens in unexpected (and therefore imperceptible) ways that parables are needed to alert us to its arrival. And yet, as Jesus says several times, “The empire of God is already among you.” 


These four little insights, for whatever they’re worth, collude nicely with a reflection I once heard Michael Clay, a priest and former colleague in the North American Forum on the Catechumenate teams, give on the gospel for the first Sunday of Lent, Year A, the familiar pericope from the Gospel of St. Matthew in which Jesus experiences the temptations of Satan in the desert. Michael talked about Satan providing Jesus with a “bad theology of election,” which was such a brilliant way of putting it. Jesus is in the desert after his baptism by John, driven there, Luke says, by the Holy Spirit, perhaps to wrestle with the meaning of the intense experience of God’s presence in that baptismal moment. What does it mean to be God’s beloved? Or to put it another way, when this God, the God who is agape, reveals self to you, what are you chosen for? How does one respond to the revelation of utter self-gift, especially when expectations are so high, and now, you discover, so utterly alien to the God who is calling?

I remember, of course, that Jesus has been fasting for forty days, or a long enough time to be empty, so we’re in the place the parable expects us to find God’s empire. Satan, the “tester,” offers a set of meanings to Jesus by which he might understand his chosenness: be full (of bread, for instance); expect that God will perform miracles to save you from your own death; choose to rule and be powerful in this world. This, in Satan’s test, is the meaning of being God’s chosen one - being full, being safe, being strong. But Jesus throws all of that aside because the one who called him “my beloved” is not what everyone expects. This is not a god who is like a judge, or an emperor, or a general. It’s a God like, well, a parent, like someone whose love gives until it is emptied out completely. Jesus chooses to be God’s chosen one and says, in effect, I will be God’s chosen and still be empty; I will be God’s chosen as a human person with all the limitations that come with that; I will be God’s chosen and be powerless. Why? Because that is how I can image this one who has called me “my beloved,” and whose chosen I am.

Maybe I’m not explaining all that very well, or maybe I only could explain it better if I were writing something more worthy than a blog. But there was some little packet of light in that parable that burst through me like a laser, carrying on its focused beam particles of thought and insight from days and months of other reflections. 

I’d say, that at least in one sense, and in this one person, for one day, the parable has at least begun to do its job!