Gospel of Thomas: The Invitation and the Obligation


Jul 09

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For the last few months, our meditation group, which has been meeting together on Sundays for the last 13 years, has been reading through the Gospel of Thomas, following our 40-minute meditation. Initially, we were reading five verses at a time, but we found that the verses were so deep, and often challenging, that now we simply reread last week’s verse and read one new one each week. As many of you probably know, the Gospel of Thomas was rediscovered buried in the Egyptian desert near the village of Nag Hammadi in 1945, along with a number of other ancient Christian texts. Initially, the Gospel of Thomas was dismissed by many scholars as being too “gnostic.” But over the years since its discovery, more and more biblical scholars have begun to realize the importance and legitimacy of Thomas. Many scholars believe that it comes from an earlier time than the Canonical Gospels in the New Testament that most of us are familiar with, namely Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John.

One of the interesting things about the Gospel of Thomas is that there is no narrative. There is no crucifixion, resurrection, or miracles. It is simply a collection of the sayings of Jesus, with some brief dialogues thrown in for good measure. It seems like someone was writing these down, either quoting from the Master himself, or possibly consulting those who were with him. About fifty percent of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are similar and recognizable from the Canonical Gospels; the other fifty percent are new material. I think they are simply amazing. It is like having a whole new, fresh book of Jesus’ sayings. They are often disturbing, and radical, and function as koans. When we struggle and work with the texts, they begin to have their effect on us, with what seem like revelatory blasts of divine wisdom. This is also an extremely nondual gospel. I think the key to understanding the Gospel of Thomas is a deep understanding and experience of nonduality.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have read two verses, which are, interestingly enough, the longest single verse quotations of any of the Gospels that I have read. In Verse 64, Jesus tells the story of a master who sends out his servant to invite various guests to a feast. All of the guests have very good, rational reasons for not attending. In a very practical way, I don’t think any of them could be faulted for their reasons for not accepting the invitation. Finally, the master tells the servant to go out and invite anyone he can find in the streets to have dinner. And then he says, “Buyers and merchants [will] not enter the places of my father.” This is the invitation.

In the next verse, Jesus tells the story of a person who owns a vineyard and rents it to some farmers. When he sends his servants to collect the rent, they are abused, until finally he sends his son, thinking he will be more respected. But they grab and kill the son, as they knew he was the heir. And Jesus says here, “Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”

Before I go on, let me state that in my exploration of Integral Christianity, and my exposure to the Jewish mystical kabbalistic tradition, I have come to understand and believe that there is no one correct interpretation of scripture (which seems to be an obsession in some schools of Christianity, especially the fundamentalist version of Protestant Christianity), but that sacred texts and scriptures serve as a sacred mirror that reflects back to us our own present conditions and evolutionary circumstances. If we try to interpret these deep, mysterious teachings literally, we have completely missed the point. As we give ourselves to the scriptures, and struggle with them, they begin to reveal themselves to us, much as in the interpretation of dreams, where we find, when we work with a dream, that there are many, many levels of interpretation―perhaps infinite levels.

So, the study of sacred texts is a relational experience that involves the reader, the text, and, of course, God, or spirit. During this process, we can move through the 3-2-1 of scripture, namely having an objective third person relation with the text, then a second person perspective with the text, in which we dialogue and struggle with the text, and finally a first person relationship to the text, where there is no longer a reader, a text, and God as separate entities, but only One. I believe that this is a process and a sacred dance. All this to say, I am not offering what I consider to be an ultimate interpretation of the verses cited, but how they spoke to me personally, and how I believe they can offer light, inspiration, and guidance on our Integral spiritual journey.

In accordance with these two verses, I believe there are two parts to our spiritual practice. The first is the invitation to partake of the spirit, or the Kingdom of God, to use biblical terminology, opening and allowing ourselves to be touched and transformed by the divine mystery. If, however, we are too busy to engage in the practice of opening ourselves and emptying ourselves, in the sense of kenosis, we will simply miss the boat, or, in this case, the feast. As I often tell my students, in times of great stress and activity, we practice more, not less. So, in the first verse, we see the invitation to open ourselves to spirit and allow ourselves to be nurtured and fed in relationship to the master.

In the second verse, we see that there is not only an invitation but also an obligation to give back to the master, or, as I understand this, to give back that which we have been given to the world and to our people. These are the two things necessary for a meaningful, transformative spiritual practice. First, we must reserve sacred time, in which we do the inner journey to our deepest and most essential real Self. Second, we have the spiritual duty and obligation to give back and give away our gifts, and not forget where they came from. We have nothing that has not been given us―even the desire to practice is a gift. If we forget whom these gifts really belong to, and what we are to do with them, we will kill and do damage to our own soul, our own divine Self, who is none other than the son of God. To give, we must receive. And when we receive, we must give.

At another place in Thomas, Jesus talks about nourishment and his food being to do the will of his father and to finish the work. I think we find that at a deep level, or perhaps a Second Tier level, that when we are doing the work that we have been called to do, giving back the unique gifts we have been given, we find that this is not a burden but that it actually nourishes our soul, and our sacred work becomes a divine meal or sacred infusion of spirit, a connection with God in our world. At yet another place in Thomas, Jesus says that if we keep what is inside of us within us, it will kill us, but if we bring it forth, it will bring us life.

So, if we accept the invitation to enter into a contemplative and direct experience with divinity, we will be transformed, infused, and inspired, and as we give back our gifts, which is our sacred obligation, we will become ever more translucent and shine the light and compassion of the eternal into our time, lives, and relations. As one poet put it, “And when the heavy journey is done, I’ll rest my weary head, for the world and its colors will be mine.”

Verse 64
Jesus said, “A person was receiving guests. When he had prepared the dinner, he sent his slave to invite the guests. The slave went to the first and said to that one, ‘My master invites you.’ That one said, ‘Some merchants owe me money; they are coming to me tonight. I have to go and give them instructions. Please excuse me from dinner.’ The slave went to another and said to that one, ‘My master has invited you.’ That one said to the slave, ‘I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day. I shall have no time.’ The slave went to another and said to that one, ‘My master invites you.’ That one said to the slave, ‘My friend is to be married, and I am to arrange the banquet. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me from dinner.’ The slave went to another and said to that one, ‘My master invites you.’ That one said to the slave, ‘I have bought an estate, and I am going to collect the rent. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me.’ The slave returned and said to his master, ‘Those whom you invited to dinner have asked to be excused.’ The master said to his slave, ‘Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.’ Buyers and merchants [will] not enter the places of my Father.”

Verse 65
He said, “A […] person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers, so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so the farmers would give him the vineyard’s crop. They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master. His master said, ‘Perhaps he didn’t know them.’ He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one as well. Then the master sent his son and said, ‘Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.’ Because the farmers knew that he was the heir to the vineyard, they grabbed him and killed him. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”