Sunday, April 06, 2008

Jesus On Asceticism

In early March I was asked to share my thoughts on Asceticism and how it applies (if at all) to Gnosticism. I’m admittedly not a fan of it, and recommend only brief stints of abstinence from food, sex, and other sensory pleasures – almost purely to develop the Will. Now I will share some of Jesus’ teachings on this subject from the Gospel of Thomas:

His disciples questioned him and said to him, "Do you want us to fast? How shall we pray? Shall we give alms? What diet shall we observe?"
Jesus said, "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate, for all things are plain in the sight of heaven. For nothing hidden will not become manifest, and nothing covered will remain without being uncovered."

- Logion 6

Jesus’ disciples ask him what practices they should do to be worthy, and many of the things they ask are physical observances. Should they restrict their diet (i.e. not eat meat) or fast? Should they give offerings to the temple and the poor? Should they pray, and how shall they pray?

Jesus does not give them the law. He does not say: do this and don’t do this. All he says is: “Do not tell lies”, for isn’t the observation of a diet that you do not truly wish to keep a lie? Isn’t the giving of alms which you do not wish to give a lie? Isn’t the doing of anything that you do not truly wish to do a lie? Jesus tells us: “Do not do what you hate”. Do not restrict your diet or avoid sex or create this image of false piety, for “all things are plain in the sight of heaven” – God sees all, and he knows the truly pious of heart from those who don the vesture of piety. You do not enter the Kingdom of Heaven by changing your diet or restricting your desires. These are just as much a part of the illusion as everything else. The Key to the Kingdom is inside you. You can use fasting to find it, and you can use fasting and find nothing. You can’t do A, B, and C and magically attain enlightenment.

Jesus said to them, "If you fast, you will give rise to sin for yourselves; and if you pray, you will be condemned; and if you give alms, you will do harm to your spirits. When you go into any land and walk about in the districts, if they receive you, eat what they will set before you, and heal the sick among them. For what goes into your mouth will not defile you, but that which issues from your mouth - it is that which will defile you."

- Logion 14

This is a very striking verse. Jesus says that these practices will result in bad things. While it is perhaps safe to assume that this is a bit of a hyperbole on Jesus’ part, the real crunch of the matter comes with his explanation. He encourages hospitality – eat what is offered to you, for it is rude to observe a diet that results in rejecting that which is offered to you by your host. Heal the sick no matter what time or day. Do not allow good will to be restricted by these conventions of man. What enters you mouth (food) is not as important as what issues from it: words. Those who deal in tainted words shall be tainted by them. Control what you let leave your mouth, not what you let enter.

I sill leave with the remaining passages from the Gospel of Thomas that deal directly with his views on ascetic practice: May those with ears to hear, hear:

Jesus said, "Do not be concerned from morning until evening and from evening until morning about what you will wear."

- Logion 36

His disciples said to him, "Is circumcision beneficial or not?"
He said to them, "If it were beneficial, their father would beget them already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become completely profitable."

- Logion 53

Jesus said, "Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Do you not realize that he who made the inside is the same one who made the outside?"

- Logion 89

They said to Jesus, "Come, let us pray today and let us fast."
Jesus said, "What is the sin that I have committed, or wherein have I been defeated? But when the bridegroom leaves the bridal chamber, then let them fast and pray."

- Logion 104

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