And he said: “Man can be compared to a wise fisher who cast his net at sea and drew it up full of small fish from below (the surface). Among them the wise fisher found a fine, large fish. He threw away the fry back into the sea, and he had no difficulty choosing the large fish. He who has an ear to lend, let him listen.
—Gospel of Thomas
The first parable-like saying of Thomas breaks away from the author’s cryptic, mystifying style and surprises with its common-sense thrust, and simplicity. The wisdom of the fisher resembles the pragmatism of the child who discards his smaller treats in favor of the biggest one. Several logia in Thomas’ gospel play on the mystical theme of a return to childhood as a prerequisite for the liberation of the divine essence. If we are asked to lend an attentive ear, there must be matters of the foremost importance to be learned from the fisherman who chooses one large fish over many small ones. In the last paragraph of his massive epic novel Musashi, Eiji Yoshikawa offers a surprising conclusion to the readers who for months had been kept enthralled by the characters’ adventures (the novel was originally serialized): “The little fishes, abandoning themselves to the waves, dance and sing, and play, but who knows the heart of the sea, a hundred feet down? Who knows its depth?“ The philosophical wink is clever: we are the little fishes, preoccupied by trifles and frivolities at the surface while incognizant of the great, meaningful depths were the Spirit dwells. That is also the key to understand Logion 8. Unlike his counterparts, the fishers of men in the Gospel of Matthew (see Matthew 4:19), the gnostic fisher imagined by Thomas has no intention to turn the fry into a flock. His yearning is for the Spirit, the desirable fish in the inner depths of man. The fish of course was also an emblem for Jesus in early Christianity. So the parable is congruent with the idea that Jesus in Thomas’ writings is an allegorical figure for the indwelling, divine presence.
I enjoy visiting public aquariums, and when I do, I am always haunted by the gaze of the enormous fish dawdling silently, peering through the glass at all those humans they may find very foolish. I often think they epitomize the wise soul full of prudence and sagacity.
For an original interpretation of the Logia with a more esoteric or gnostic thrust in the Gospel of Thomas , see A Book to Free the Soul.
Jesus said: “There was a man of wealth who had many riches. He said: ‘I will use my riches to sow, reap, plant, and to fill my treasure-house with fruit, so that I will not need anything.’ These thoughts he had in his mind (alt. ‘in his heart’); and in the present night, he died. He who has an ear to lend, let him listen.”
Logion 63 of the Gospel of Thomas
Little spiritual discernment is needed to understand the implications of this logion. The message here—for once devoid of a hidden subtext—is urgently conveyed to anyone who has an ear to lend: our engrossment with materialism is dire foolishness. A man accumulates all the possessions he believes he might need in his life only to die the same day he completes his task. That is the irony of an existence spent in preparation for hypothetical necessities without a care for death who might come unannounced and swiftly.
The ruling elite of the Etruscans, the Celts, and the Vikings, the potentates of the ancient Chinese kingdoms, the Pharaohs and priests of Egypt were entombed surrounded by their earthly belongings in a vain hope to perpetuate their privileged status in the afterlife. You would think our modern consciousness has transcended such limited outlook, but what sort of highly conceptualized metaphysics can you really expect from the average person who cannot part with his smartphone for more than 20 minutes at a time. Instead, we witness the ever increasing popularity of pseudo-spiritual schemes such as the “Law of Attraction,” or the “Prosperity Gospel,” that conveniently allow for greed to be justified through a metaphysical perspective. Far from renouncing our attachment to materiality, we have grown more dependent on the rich variety of its dubious gifts. The contemporary individual may scoff at the poor spiritual foresight and awareness of his ancestors but he is hardly more enlightened than his predecessors. In our days, we simply ignore our impending demise and give ourselves entirely to the “pursuit of happiness” (the most inventive euphemism ever concocted for our obsession with property and the accumulation of the useless). Our “needs” are constantly pushed farther so that there is no possibility of fulfilling them: a blind intent that is the basis for industrial societies epitomized in capitalist America by its underpinning middle-class. In his essay On the Vanity of Existence, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer remarks:
How insatiable a creature is man! Every satisfaction he attains lays the seeds of some new desire, so that there is no end to the wishes of each individual will.
Crass materialism was made acceptable under the guise of an ideal to which we attached many values (including religious or spiritual ones), but we are fooling ourselves: we left in the distant past our legitimate yearnings for comfort and rushed headlong in a greedy chase after persistently receding aims. Oblivious to its annihilating power, we revel in the insatiability that devours us. The rich man in Thomas’ story uses his money to increase profits; Georges Bernanos wrote that spiritual values will never be restored as long as profit is honored, when it should only be tolerated and controlled. Our descent in the bottomless ravine of greed begins the moment we seek to multiply gains beyond the requirements of our well-being. Tragically, we cannot discern the lies we are telling ourselves, and each step we believe is taking us closer to achieving our goal of “happiness” is in reality leading us away from the richness of a mystical sovereignty. In Logion 110, Thomas drops the parable in favor of a straightforward approach:
Whoever has found the world and become rich, let him renounce the world.
There is no ambiguity in Thomas’ views about wealth: it is the fastest road into the trapping of the physical world. Even more dangerous to our soul than excess wealth is the power it yields:
Whoever has become rich, let him become king, and he who has power, let him renounce (it)
Logion 81 of the Gospel of Thomas
The final snare of excessive wealth is that the plutocrat cannot conceive of something loftier for the soul. He loses the ability to think abstractly and favors a notion that there isn’t really anything better than what can be accumulated physically. In Thomas’ philosophy, money rules the world, and the rulers of the world are the rich. Anyone finding himself in such a mighty position should weight his priorities: One cannot serve God and mammon. For the gnostic, the material plane has nothing of authentic value to offer. She seeks not the rewards of the world but an empyreal sovereignty through a knowledge of herself.