Saturday, April 21, 2012

Buyers and Merchants Will Not Enter the Place of My Father

I've been reading the Gospel of Thomas lately. I love this text! It's become part of my "standard works," and I read it along with the other four canonical gospels. Arguably, it predates all of them. Scholars think it is at least as old as the oldest parts of the New Testament -- the oldest parts of the Gospel of Mark, and the Pauline Epistles. Thomas was a "sayings" gospel. Unlike the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Thomas doesn't have a storyline to follow. It's just a collection of "sayings" of Jesus, recorded in seemingly random (and sometimes repetitive) fashion. Scholars think that the gospels of Matthew and Luke used another "sayings" gospel as a common source. That "sayings" gospel -- called "Q" by the scholars -- has been lost. But it seems likely that "sayings" gospels like Thomas and "Q" were the earliest written accounts of the ministry of Jesus.

A number of the sayings in Thomas are immediately recognizable as sayings that have been recorded in the canonical gospels. Others are similar to the canonical sayings, but with a bit of a different twist.

For example, in Thomas 64, we find a version of the parable of the wedding feast (compare Luke 14:16-24 and Matthew 22:1-10). In the Thomas version, the master sends his servants out to issue invitations to come to a banquet. In turn, each of the invited makes excuses, but all of the excuses in the Thomas version are a bit more mercenary: "Some merchants owe me money; they are coming to me tonight"; "I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day"; "I have bought an estate, and I am going to collect the rent." As in the canonical versions of this story, the master then sends his servants to collect guests from among the poor in the streets. But then Jesus interjects the rather blunt moral: "Buyers and merchants will not enter the place of my Father."

The Thomas version contains a much more unambiguous condemnation of materialism and capitalism. Jesus here seems to be saying that people who are too concerned with wealth and material goods will simply be too distracted to pay attention to what is really important. They will simply miss or disregard the invitation to enter into God's kingdom. The Gospel of Thomas also includes two other parables that should be familiar to readers of the canonical gospels: the parable of the rich man who invested his wealth in building storehouses for all his produce and wealth, but then died the very next day (Thomas 63; Luke 12:16-20); and the parable of the merchant who sold all his wealth so that he could buy a single pearl (Thomas 76; Matthew 13:45-46). Both of these parables are about wealthy men, but in the first case, the man invests his wealth in building storehouses for his wealth, while in the second case, he gives up all his wealth for the "pearl". Both, again, are morality tales warning against the dangers of distracting wealth. It is better to give it all up for the sake of the pearl of the gospel.

But this morning it occurred to me that there is another layer of meaning in Thomas' story of the wedding feast than just a condemnation of materialism. "Buyers and merchants" are people who are obsessed with favorable exchange. They give only so that they can get in return; and they are usually trying to get more than they give, to play the vicissitudes of the market to maximum personal advantage. Much of Jesus' teaching promotes the opposite moral. Followers of Jesus should give without expectation of return or reward:

Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.... For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them. And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? for sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. (Luke 6:30-36, emphasis is mine)

This willingness to give away without hope of receiving is linked in this teaching recorded in Luke with the qualities of mercy and kindness that God displays toward us. Even though the Luke account of this saying of Jesus includes the rubric "your reward shall be great," clearly the ethical thrust of this saying is that it is not for a reward that we should behave in such a manner, but to be "children of God." If God behaves in such a manner, then so should we, if we are his "children."

If we wish to be like Christ, and like our Father in Heaven, we should give, unconditionally, without expectation of return.

We should give up our expectations.


Anonymous said...

In Christ's high priestly prayer, He prays that the Church may be One. Already before the death of the Elder (John), there were groups (denominations/cults) that deny the incarnation. Among the beliefs of these Gnostic "Christians" was that matter was intrinsically evil and thus God could not become man (flesh=matter=evil). It is from this heresy of Gnostism that we get the Pseudographical "Gospel" of Thomas, which is dated well after the canonical Sciptures, probally mid-2nd century.


Anonymous said...

I think pseudepigraphal is the correct term.


J G-W said...

Jeff, have you read the Gospel of Thomas?

Matthew said...

'"Buyers and merchants" are people who are obsessed with favorable exchange.'

What an intriguing idea, John. I had never thought of this before, but it certainly seems to fit the rest of the messages in the scriptures regarding wealth.