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. (14)
There is a Zen story of a man who gave an answer to a roshi’s question, and was told he had answered correctly. The next day the roshi asked the same question and the man gave the same answer. The roshi said his answer was wrong. When the man protested that the day before his answer was said to be correct, the roshi replied that the day before it had been right, but today it was wrong. The idea was that as we move forward in consciousness, Yes can become No, No can become Yes, and both can become Neither.
In the Father’s “house” are many “mansions” (John 14:2). In the field of relative existence, there are many strata, many realities. As a consequence, what is wise in one stratum can be folly in another. This is expressed in this verse of the Gospel of Thomas. Obviously, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving are viable forms of self-purification. But Jesus is leading the disciples to a higher realm, a higher understanding, in which those things are no longer relevant.
Fasting is purely physical. Being in a material body, we are deeply influenced by its conditions and changes. The mind and body are so interwoven they are often indistinguishable. Therefore our eating patterns affect us greatly. Fasting is recommended as a means of lessening our body identity. This is certainly beneficial. But once a person develops skill in yoga, his center of awareness is shifted into higher mental levels, and a physical practice no longer has the efficacy it once had. In time it becomes irrelevant. A point is reached in which fasting is as silly as having a horse pull an automobile rather than turning on the engine. Therefore to continue fasting as a spiritual discipline is to act incongruously with our present status and can, through habit, cause us to revert to our former status in which fasting was relevant. So what was once an aid can become a detriment.
It is the same with prayer. It presupposes the absurdity that we need to inform God of our inner thoughts, feelings, and needs–that otherwise he will either not know of them or will not care about them. Furthermore, prayer assumes a dependency on another and denies our own innate power as spiritual beings. Jesus frequently told people that it was their faith, their conviction, that healed them (Matthew 9:22, 15:28; Mark 5:34, 10:52; Luke 7:50, 8:48, 17:19, 18:42). Yet, we steadfastly refuse to believe this fundamental truth: “According to your faith be it unto you” (Matthew 9:29).
In Greek, the language of the Four Gospels and parts of the Gospel of Thomas, two words are used which in English are translated “prayer.” One is deesis, which means asking for something. This is what Jesus condemns in this instance. The second word is prosevke, which means “to draw near.” This is a completely different matter, as it is a spiritual movement toward infinity. Even verbal formulas can effect this drawing near to higher consciousness. This form of prayer is not being censured by Jesus.
The much worse aspect of prayer (deesis) is its presupposition that we are separate from God. So when we pray we affirm this illusion and strengthen ourselves in it. The Chandogya Upanishad tells us: “Where one sees nothing else, hears nothing else, understands nothing else, that is the infinite. But where one sees something else, hears something else, understands something else, that is the small [the finite]. Verily, the infinite is the same as the immortal, the finite is the same as the mortal” (Chandogya Upanishad 24:1). To affirm a non-existent separation from God is to doom ourselves to mortality, to death-in-life.
The situation is very much the same with almsgiving, if we see those we give assistance to as separate from ourselves. When we help others we are really helping ourselves, for in God we are at one with all that lives. Not only that, those with opened spiritual eyes see that whatever they do to others they do to God, the Indweller of Hearts (Matthew 25:40; Bhagavad Gita 10:20; 15:15, 17; 18:61). Through others we either give or take from God. This is an awesome truth. If God is the object of our almsgiving, then it is an act of supreme virtue that leads to the Supreme.
What to do?
Should we then immediately stop these three observances? Not necessarily. What is needed is for us to diligently apply ourselves to meditation and rectitude of life so we can ascend to that level of evolution in which the words of Jesus apply to us just as they did to the apostles.
Read the next section in The Gospel of Thomas for Yogis: Father in Heaven; Father on Earth