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Lesson 4 -The Empty Jar

Logion 97 of the gospel of Thomas

Yeshua says, "The Father's realm is like a woman carrying a jar full of meal. While she is walking on a path some distance from her home, the handle of her jug breaks, and the meal spills out behind her on the road. She is unaware of the problem, for she has noticed nothing. When she opens the door of her house and puts the jar down, suddenly she discovers it empty."

I was first introduced to the gospel of Thomas by Cynthia Beaugeault, an Episcopal priest. At first I was skeptical. Why do we need another gospel. But I have learned to love Thomas' gospel.

The gospel of Thomas is an important source for the sayings and parables of Jesus. It contains 114 sayings and parables but lacks a narrative framework. The gospel was found in its complete form at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945.

Thomas is one of the earliest gospels and is believed to have been a source used by Matthew and Luke in creating their gospels. The first edition of Thomas was probably written during the decade 50-60 A.D. Compare that to the writings of Mark, 66-70 A.D., Matthew and Luke, 86-90 A.D., and John, 90-110 A.D.

It is interesting that Thomas places this parable of the empty jar, right after the parable of the yeast, Logion 96. The parable as he presents it: "Yeshua says, 'The Father's realm can be compared to a woman who takes a tiny bit of yeast, folds it into dough and makes great loaves out of it. Whoever has ears for this, listen!'"

We have said that parables are meant to shake us up a bit. "What makes you think the world is as you see it?" But when I came upon this little parable of the empty jar I discovered that there is another question that needs to be asked, "What makes you think the kingdom of God is as you see it?"

Here in Thomas' gospel, back to back, we have two parables of the realm or kingdom of God that seem to be opposite of each other. In the parable of the leaven the woman takes a tiny bit of yeast and makes great loaves of bread out of it. Fullness. Abundance. I like this kingdom of God.

But just turn the page and we have the parable of the empty jar. In this household, a woman is preparing to make bread, but she must go out into the wider world to get the necessary ingredients. But she loses all that she gains on the return road home. She enters her house and finds her jar is completely empty. What is strange is that she doesn't know that her jar is empty, it says, "She is unaware of the problem, for she has noticed nothing."

Her jar is empty. Let me ask, is this the precise moment that she steps into the reality of the Kingdom? It seems that there always needs to be a process of emptying.

Think about this season we are now in, the trees have been emptied of their leaves. From the room I do my disciplines in the morning I look out across my street to a group of trees. The view was full in the summer with lavish leaves covering all the trees. Now it is much more barren and empty. And it seems that it is as it should be in this moment in time, this time when we are hunkered down because of the Covid virus.

And think about this season of Advent. I know all of the women in our church experience the joy of putting up Christmas in our homes. I like to fill every nook and cranny with Christmas. But there is always something that must be done first. I have to begin with emptying my house of all that is in the way of Christmas. I have to tuck away so many things. Things that are not needed. Among other things I have to empty the table I place my crèche on.

Advent season is a time of emptying, of making room in our hearts once again for the baby Jesus. It is a quiet time, a time for reflection, a time for opening and for letting go. It is the perfect time for us to think about this little parable.

Questions for reflection:

  1. Thomas has linked this parable right after the woman and the yeast, but they appear to be opposite images, though both are about providing for the necessities of a household in buying meal and baking bread. How do they each illustrate the principles governing God's realm?
  2. Are these logia complementary opposites?
  3. What do you think about this parable? If you imagine that the picture of the empty jar is a negative image, what would that mean? If, instead, you imagine it to be positive, how would that change your interpretation? Try both views. Which one to you like best?
  4. What do you think about the woman not noticing the accident? What does the fact that she did not notice suggest to you about the kingdom? See Luke 17:20-21 for a clue.
  5. Do you find any significance of the words about walking the path?
  6. How is emptiness a sign of the Kingdom? Why might it be necessary?

Extra credit

Father Daniel has asked us to be thinking about each one of us being the candles, the lights, of the Advent wreath. We are to think about the light that we want to bring for the Christmas eve service. Barbara has already been thinking about her light by surrounding our church sign with Christmas boughs. She is letting her light shine. How can we empty our light out into the world? 

—Katie White