Shuck and Jive

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Emptiness and Awareness: A Sermon

Emptiness and Awareness
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
August 22nd, 2010

Thomas 97:1-4 Jesus used to say, “The Father’s Imperial rule is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her along the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.”

In the mid 90s when the Jesus Seminar published their work on the sayings of Jesus, they called their book The Five Gospels. In Sunday School we learned there were four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. What is this fifth gospel?

It is the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is not in the Bible. It was discovered in 1945 in a collection of documents found in clay jars near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. This collection is thus called the Nag Hammadi Library. Thomas was discovered with a number of other documents dating back to the fourth century. Apparently, these documents had been hidden away for safe-keeping.

The document that has stirred the most interest is the Gospel of Thomas. It is a collection of sayings of Jesus. The language is Coptic. It is divided into 114 sayings or logia. Some of these sayings are very much like, almost identical to, the sayings of Jesus in the canonical gospels. Some of these sayings are similar to them but with significant differences. Other sayings are completely unfamiliar.

This is why Thomas is interesting. The big question is this:
Are the sayings of Jesus found in The Gospel of Thomas independent of the sayings found in the canonical gospels, or are they dependent upon them?
If dependent, then Thomas tells us little about Jesus. The author copied sayings from the canonical gospels, changed some of them, and simply made up the other sayings a century or more after Jesus.

However, if they are an independent collection of sayings of Jesus, they may be at least as valuable as the canonical gospels in going back to Jesus. We may have found a collection of sayings of Jesus that we haven't known about for 1600 years.

One would think that the church would celebrate this finding. How fascinating to find out more about our hero, Jesus! But that hasn’t been the case. The church on the whole has been defensive. It has called this document pejoratively a Gnostic heresy and claims that it is a distortion of the teachings of Jesus.

Other scholars are saying, not so fast. These sayings could very well go back to Jesus or be as legitimate as the sayings in the earliest gospel, Mark, and perhaps Q, a source for both Luke and Matthew.

Of course we can imagine why the church would be defensive. After all, there would be a great deal of paperwork involved. You might have to republish the Bible, rewrite the creeds, change your picture of Jesus.

In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus doesn’t die on the cross for your sins. There is not a lot of doctrine in Thomas. You are to find your own path.

Steven Davies in his book, The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom, writes:
Thus, to understand the text to be as it appears to be, an early independent list of sayings attributed to Jesus that has no generative connection with any other known piece of Christian writing, seems to be the most reasonable alternative. Accordingly, it is about as valuable a source for the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as are the synoptic Gospels, and considerably more valuable than the Gospel of John. P. xx.
The Jesus Seminar determined that Thomas was an equal authority to the canonical gospels in regards to sayings that might go back to the historical Jesus and view Thomas as an independent source. The Seminar, ended up being, in my view, somewhat conservative regarding the sayings in Thomas that were unique to Thomas.

Only two sayings, the parable of the empty jar, and the parable of the assassin were given pink votes. In part this is due to their methodology. Multiple attestation requires that a saying be found in more than one independent source to be authentic. By that criterion, anything unique to Thomas would not likely make the cut. However, by that same criterion, the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son wouldn’t make the cut either as they are found only in Luke. So the seminar still might have harbored doubts about Thomas, in part because of canonical boundaries and perhaps because they were haunted by that old Gnostic bugaboo.

I personally regard Thomas as authoritative as the canonical gospels regarding the sayings about Jesus. I think we should include it in the Bible. I think to do so would break the iron clasp of dogmatic theology upon the church, would make us more aware of the diversity of early Christianity, and give us more insights into the person of Jesus.

What do we make of this parable of "The Empty Jar"?

We all know the feeling of this woman, don’t we? We all have similar stories. We lose something valuable. When she gets home we know she must have been angry with herself, possibly in a panic. She didn’t just drop a loaf of bread out of an otherwise full grocery cart. This jar of meal could have been all the food for her and her family for a week. This is a serious loss.

Where does Jesus come off saying this is like the kingdom of God? This is a negative story, bordering on the tragic.

Perhaps it is symbolic. Perhaps we are to regard it as a metaphor for emptying oneself and one’s mind. I have used that idea in today’s liturgy with the saying from the 11th chapter of the Tao Te Ching.

Even so, I am not so sure. It seems perhaps a little too clever and hip. It feels like I want to make Jesus a Buddhist. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But…

Some fellows of the Jesus Seminar thought the parable of "The Empty Jar" it was a spoof on the Elijah story where the woman’s jar never runs out of meal. Again, clever. It connects Jesus’ parable to the Hebrew scriptures. It is like the spoof of the mustard weed being compared to the cedar of Lebanon. The kingdom of God is more like a weed than a tall cedar. The kingdom is an empty jar not a full one. Perhaps.

It could be that as we also know a bad event can open us up to something unexpected. Over the weekend my lovely and I saw the film, Eat, Pray, Love. The main character played by Julia Roberts gets divorced and is of course feeling awful. She is filled with worry and self-doubt. She goes to the bookstore and buys a couple of books with these titles: Who Moved My Cheese? and From Crappy to Happy.

Maybe that is what Jesus is doing with this parable. Jesus is saying in effect:
Don’t cry over spilled milk, or in this case, spilled meal. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Yeah, this sucks, but hey, this could open new horizons for you. From crappy to happy.
Am I getting annoying yet? We have heard those clich├ęs so often. Yet it is true that when we get to the point that bad events are not only bad events we can find in them opportunities for change and growth and even unexpected joy. Maybe that is what Jesus is talking about. Maybe.

My hunch is that your wheels are turning. You are trying to figure out this parable. Perhaps that is the point.

The challenge of the Gospel of Thomas is trying to figure out what it is about. It has no plot. It has no easily identifiable theology or ideology. The old pejorative dismissal that it is a Gnostic heresy is being challenged by many different scholars today. But it is hard to find in it any overall structure or meaning. While individual scholars have claimed to find a pattern or a theology, there is no consensus regarding that.

Steven Davies suggests that that should give us a clue. He says that Thomas is a collection of sayings in no particular order. He further suggests that it was designed not to offer a plot or a theology but as a collection of individual oracles. He says that Thomas was used for “random oracular divination.” He writes:
Its purpose is to determine the answers to an individual’s questions by reference to an established set of statements, verbal or non-verbal, which are presumed to be of supernatural origin. Those statements, to be functional, must be indeterminate in meaning and so applicable to various situations. P. 157
Think of a set of Tarot cards. You go to an expert with your problem and the expert turns over cards and with you interprets an answer.

If you have ever read your horoscope in the newspaper, read a fortune cookie, been to a psychic, had your dreams analyzed, meditated, read your Bible, or even gone to church to hear a sermon, with the hope, perhaps even expectation, that you might get a Word or insight from something outside your own mind, you are in familiar territory. The fundamental difference between any of those things is whether or not you trust their authority.

Davies suggests that Thomas functioned like that. He compares it to “the Homer Oracle”, a collection of 216 sentences. There are instructions that go with it on how it is to be used. 216 is an interesting number. It is six cubed. If you were to roll three six-sided dice there are 216 possible combinations. The idea of the oracle is that you roll the dice and you land on a saying. That saying is the Word for you. You work that. It is ambiguous enough for you to spend a great deal of time interpreting it, perhaps with the assistance of an expert.

Davies says that Thomas was like that. He also suggests that we have numbered the sayings incorrectly and that are 108 sayings, not 114. One hundred eight would be half of 216. You could use the dice with Thomas too.

Regardless of the method, this collection of the sayings of Jesus would have been understood as a collection of random divine oracles that would be used under the proper circumstances to help a person work out their problems or questions.

That does not mean that Jesus meant them as such when he uttered them. He may not have uttered all of them any more than he uttered all the sayings attributed to him in the canonical gospels. But the collector saw them as such and created this document with this in mind.

Many people read the Bible in this way. The idea of the lectionary is based on a reading for a particular day. You read it listening for what Spirit may say to you. Thomas may have had a similar function. In order for it to work, you need:

1) To trust that the oracles are authoritative (ie. sayings of Jesus, a spirit-intoxicated prophet).
2) Each saying to be open-ended and ambiguous enough to allow for interpretation.
3) A randomness factor so that neither the client or the diviner chooses the oracle, but is seen as "chosen" for the client.

So back to "The Empty Jar". What does it mean? Wrong question, if we think we can find a definitive, objective meaning. The right question is what might it mean for me today? Take this parable and work it. Live with it. Let it question you as you question it. Allow your question or problem to be spoken to. Trust that no one can give you the right answer but that you can discover it for yourself. The Gospel of Thomas can be a tool to help.

During our meditation time this morning, I asked each of you to focus on a particular problem or question with which you were wrestling. Now, bring it to mind. Let this parable speak to it:
Jesus used to say, “The Father’s Imperial rule is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her along the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.”
What say you?


  1. Cool sermon. Am impressed that you can talk/preach about the Jesus Seminar and Gospel of Thomas.
    Am intrigued with the idea of creating 108 "Thomas Cards" (similar to Tarot cards, but each with a saying...and maybe a simple line drawing!). Using them for personal meditation/reflection in the way u described reminds me of the lectio divina process of 'praying scripture.' Apparently this was developed some 1000 years ago by the Benedictines.
    Good ideas keep resurfacing, i guess.
    Thanks, Rob

  2. Thomas cards. That is a oool idea.

    It would be like the Sufi Book of Life that one of my church members told me about today after the sermon! Press a button and download an oracle!

  3. 1) To trust that the oracles are authoritative (ie. sayings of Jesus, a spirit-intoxicated prophet).

    I'm confused - how is it that an oracle is authoritative apart from the work of the supernatural? Otherwise, wouldn't any list of 108 sayings be equally authoritative? If they are sayings of Jesus, then taken entirely out of context and scrambled in unknown ways, how do they retain meaning, much less authority? Beyond the meaning anyone can find in an ink-blot...

  4. @Doug For this or any kind of divination to work for people they have to believe it will "work" or it can "work". I personally don't believe in any of it. However, I do understand the psychology of an outside insight.

    I thought it was interesting the Thomas might have been used as a divination tool. I do think there is more to it than that.

    I also realize how often we use some form of "divination" in many of our activities including reading the Bible as if it were "the word of God".

  5. WOW! I’m moving to Elizabethton! Nutz with the West Virginia mountains.

    I’m surprised the fusspots haven’t descended on you yet: Tarot and Thomas and Trust, OH MY!

    I love the idea of the Revised Common Lectionary as Divination tool. THAT would explain the Elves for sure. Solo Scriptura, and all that. (If readers don’t know who “the elves” are, visit my website at

    And THOMAS CARDS! That is a really fabulous idea. I strongly suggest you propose that to the Westar Institute’s Polebridge Press. They just might like it. Talk about Stealth Scholarship! If they don’t, Llewellyn Publishing Company in Minneapolis might. They are the world expert on Tarot, and other divination systems (angels, saints, animals, Celts, etc.) Then maybe Jim Wallis’ Sojourners Magazine would feature it in their “real product” blurb and Elizabethton would be on the map.

    Keep it up John. When the PCUSA throw’s your wonderful community out, you have two choices: join the Unitarians, or start an alternative Bible church (my choice). I’ll sign up.

  6. @SeaRaven

    I love your comments! I like the idea of Thomas cards as that would help people learn this great gospel. I am going to do it and use them as a teaching tool.

    Thanks for the idea, Rob!!

    I'll be a Presby as long as they will let me.