“Re-Imagine the World: The Parable of the Empty Jar”
A Sermon for University Congregational Church
Sunday, July 9, 2017
By Rev. Paul E. Ellis Jackson
Jesus said: The kingdom of the [Father] is like a woman; carrying a jar full of meal and walking a long way. The handle on the jar broke; the meal poured out behind her on the road. She was unaware, she knew not her loss. When she came into her house, she put down the jar (and) found it empty. The Gospel of Thomas, 97
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.
From the Tao De Ching
“The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”
― Woody Allen
“We become aware of the void as we fill it.”
― Antonio Porchia
“In all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”
― Carl Sagan
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And Thomas. Wait…what? Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And Thomas. Did I say that right? Thomas? I know the first four as the Gospels of our canonical Bible. That is, the letters and writings that were finally accepted to be the authentic “Word of God”. We hear this all the time—God said it—I Believe it-that settles it. Except for those of us who believe that God is still speaking. And for those of us who know that what is commonly accepted as the “Holy Bible” was actually one man’s preference for what documents should be used for teaching the orthodox view of Christianity. Bishop Athanasius wrote in the year 367, his 39th Festal Letter in which he outlined those books that he felt were worthy of inclusion into the canon. This one man determined which words would become Holy Scripture and make their way into the bible. One man. At least that’s the view of my professor of Early Christianities, Dr. Peter Mena, and he makes a compelling case. The documentary evidence is scanty, but the traditional usage is enormous. It’s tough to be a small voice in a large crowd, but I still tried to listen to what Dr. Mena was saying: What if one man, one very powerful man, was able to convince his followers and the emperor that these books and writings were “in” and these were “out”. These are orthodox, “right-teaching” and these over here are heresy “different teaching”. One powerful man. And yet I still hear people apologizing for him all of the time and telling me that God instructed him and he was doing God’s work. Perhaps. But I think he left out a lot of really good, useful, wise stuff in the name of orthodoxy. I think he was too interested in preserving his own power that he wrote off anything that didn’t support that power. Of course, what we’re left with is a huge confounding mess—contradictory and flimsy and filled with doubt. I think this is why people of conscious have a difficult time honestly saying that everything written in the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Some of us heretics know that the words in the Bible are far too important than to be taken literally. They are to be read with an informed mind and understood in the context in which they were written. Which brings us back to the Gospels. Why only four? And why these four? Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?
We now know that there was the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Simon Peter, the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Barnabas along with many others. One sect of Christianity—the Gnostics—believed that the disciple Thomas was not only Jesus’s twin brother but also the founder of churches across Asia. Christianity was in chaos in its early days, with some sects declaring the others heretics. And then, in the early 300s, Emperor Constantine of Rome declared he had become follower of Jesus, ended his empire’s persecution of Christians and set out to reconcile the disputes among the sects. Constantine was a brutal sociopath who murdered his eldest son, decapitated his brother-in-law and killed his wife by boiling her alive, and that was after he proclaimed that he had converted from worshipping the sun god to being a Christian. Yet he also changed the course of Christian history, ultimately influencing which books made it into the New Testament. It makes sense that the Bishop Athanasius would put in his list of books of the Bible considered “authoritative” only those already approved by the emperor. Especially an emperor with a fondness for boiling people alive.
I’m using all of this to illustrate the complexity of the formation of this dangerous book—the Bible. And to highlight the paradox of pronouncing something finished. Buried deep within the un-official Gospel of Thomas we find this week’s parable. The Parable of the Empty Jar. Listen to the words of the Gospel of Thomas: “Jesus said: The kingdom of the [Father] is like a woman; carrying a jar full of meal and walking a long way. The handle on the jar broke; the meal poured out behind her on the road. She was unaware, she knew not her loss. When she came into her house, she put down the jar (and) found it empty. That’s it. That’s the parable. Counter this with the other parables we’ve chewed on so far this summer: The Lost Sheep and The Mustard Seed. Each of these seemed to have a pretty clear message: In Robin’s work with the Mustard Seed parable she asked us to remember that the seeds of the Beloved Community are within each of us—that God does indeed work in ways unfathomable to us—that the smallest of seeds planted today may reap a huge harvest next year. And when I was working with the parable of the Lost Sheep I found deep connections with conscientiousness and care for the smallest details of our lives.
What is Jesus trying to teach in this parable? Is it some profound doctrine about the church? Is it how to be a good neighbor? Is spilling grain all of the way home being a good neighbor? Is it about forgetfulness? We don’t get any real moral from this story. Jesus doesn’t add a pithy saying at the end and admonish us to always check our jar and make sure it securely fastened so that the grain doesn’t spill out on the way home. Jesus is comparing God’s ideal community to this empty jar. Talk about room for interpretation! There’s literally nothing in the empty jar that keeps us from interpreting the Beloved Community in any way we wish whatsoever. It’s about as ambiguous as you can get. I believe that how one approaches life in general might inform how you interpret this story. If you view life through a lens of woe-is-me and I’m such a terrible person, a negative approach to life, then you will probably interpret this parable as a cautionary tale. This woman gets exactly what is coming to her for being so careless. Serves her right! But if you approach life with a more life-giving view, one of abundance and one comfortable with ambiguity, you might look upon this parable with wonder and awe. A pragmatist might say—well, she lost her grain, but now she has an empty vessel in case her neighbor has extra flour she can spare. A person who approaches the world with an attitude of abundance could look at this parable and see it for the mystery that it is. Jesus said that God’s beloved community is like this woman, carrying a leaky jar. We can look at this story and wonder—what’s next for this woman?
So what do we do with a woman who gets home and finds that she’s lost all of her grain on the trip from the market? How often do we do this? Get so caught up in one thing, that we completely forget the thing we started with. Have you ever walked into a room to get something only to get in the room and realize that you’ve forgotten what you were looking for? Of how about this one: Once I was talking to my mother on my cell phone, and I was gathering up stuff to leave to teach a class, and I was getting more and more frantic because I couldn’t find this one thing. I went back into the house—all the while chatting with mom—and back out to the car—I must have done this at least three times. Mom could tell I was getting frustrated and she asked me what was going on and I said—I can’t find my cell phone. I’ve looked everywhere! And she said: Isn’t it in your hand?
Isn’t that what is going on in this parable? The woman is so sure that she’s securely attached her jar filled with grain that she needn’t worry about it, so she begins her journey only to get home and realize that she’s lost everything she traveled so far to get. And where’s the big moral? This parable is confounding, isn’t it? It seems to be about nothing at all. And maybe that’s the purpose. Maybe that’s why Jesus used this teaching—The Jesus Seminar firmly believes this is an authentic teaching of Jesus—and that in itself is fascinating. Because the Gospel of Thomas wasn’t even discovered in full until 1945. I was always asking my professors at seminar: How many more caves are out there, like the one in Nag Hammadi where the complete Gospel of Thomas was found, filled with documents from the early Christian experience—waiting for us to uncover them and find new, life-giving meaning in them and learn more about the true teachings of Jesus.
So what do we learn about the Beloved Community (my preferred term for God’s Kingdom) in this parable? Well we learn that the Beloved Community is informed by loss. There’s no great miracle of divine intervention for this woman when she gets home to discover her jar is empty, is there? The clouds don’t open and the grain doesn’t magically appear, just because she has faith. There’s no happy ending here—it’s pretty bleak. We also learn that the Beloved Community is a journey. Jesus said the woman “walked a long way”. We see the journey metaphor often in Jesus’ parables. Bernard Brandon Scott says the journey metaphor isn’t the main point of this particular parable, but he also acknowledges that in the Gnostic tradition, a journey in a story represented the journey our souls take throughout our lives. Another important aspect of this parable is that it is showing us that the Beloved Community cannot be possessed, but is found by losing something. We learn more of this aspect to our lives from the teachings of Lao Tsu in his Dao de Ching, or The Way (an ancient Chinese religious text): We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being, but non-being is what we use. Isn’t that impenetrable for a Sunday morning? I love a good puzzle! We work with being—but it is non-being that we use to be. Or more to our point—God’s community of good neighbors is present in the spaces between us. A final aspect to consider when reading this parable is this: The Beloved Community is created when we least expect it, and we might be surprised by its appearance. How often are you surprised by the presence of God? Or maybe this, how often do you simply think: Wow, this is good. Life is good. I wasn’t expecting things to be like this, but they’re pretty darn good. I’m grateful for this surprise.
If we close off our faith and our spirits in a glass jar and declare them finished—done—I don’t need to think about these things anymore—God Said It—I Believe IT—That Settles It! When we do this, we begin to die. That glass jar is impermeable to the winds of the spirit. The rigid cement of a pre-modern mindset, one that refuses to allow science to inform our faith—one that refuses to acknowledge the suffering of the world right in front of us (or writes it off a “God’s will”), that’s shallow, puny thinking. But if we can imagine caves filled with more teachings and empty space and jars that leak grain all the way from the market to our homes—then we begin to see a God that works in the empty spaces. A God that breathes new life into us each day. May we fill our glass jars with grain and may they leak out, seed by seed, and nourish the earth with life-giving hope. And may we come to understand what Carl Sagan meant when he responded to the vastness of space, the enormity of the cosmos and the vast empty nothingness he encountered there, he said: “In all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.” The only thing that makes this bearable—is each other. Cherish each other and don’t worry so much about spilling some grain on your way home. And keep that amazing hope alive—what else don’t we know about all of this? What else is waiting to be discovered. I thank God each day for this community of bright minds that isn’t afraid of looking into an empty jar and asking “What’s next?”
Scott, Bernard Brandon. Re-Imagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa: PoleBridge Press, 2001.