The early church wrote many documents that did not make it into the New Testament. Most of these documents were written perhaps a century after the books of the New Testament, and present some ideas that do not fit in with traditional Christian teaching.
One of these documents is entitled, “The Acts of the Holy Apostle Thomas.” It explores the legend that the apostle Thomas brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ to India. In it, there’s this story about how Thomas comes to a certain king, King Gundaphoros. King Gondaphoros asks Thomas, “What is your trade?” Thomas says, “I am a carpenter and a mason, I work in wood and stone.” King Gundaphoros says, “What do you make with wood?” “I make boats, oars, masts, ploughs, pulleys.” “And what do you make in stone? “Monuments, temples, royal palaces.”
“Oh,” says King Gundaphoros,” “Will you make me a palace?” “Yes,” says Thomas, “I will.”
So King Gundaphoros leads Thomas out of the city to a wooded place, says, “I’d like you to build my palace here.” And he leaves building materials and plenty of money to pay Thomas and the army of workers that he would need to build his palace.
The Holy Apostle Thomas, of course, takes the money and wanders around the countryside using it to help the poor and needy and curing sicknesses and casting out demons and preaching about this God who came to us in Jesus. From time to time, King Gundaphoros sends more money and more building materials, and the Holy Apostle Thomas uses it to help the poor and cure the sick and cast out demons.
Finally, King Gundaphoros sends a letter to Thomas, saying, “How’s the place coming?” Thomas writes back, “It’s all done except the roof.” So King Gundaphoros sends gold and silver for the roof, which, of course, Thomas uses to help the poor and cast out demons and heal the sick and so on.
Finally, the king goes out to the place where he wanted the palace, and he finds nothing but a few trees and pasture grass. So King Gundaphoros asks the people of the city, What has Thomas been doing all this time?” And the people of the city say “He’s been helping the poor and needy and curing the sick and casting out demons, and proclaiming this God of Jesus. And people follow him because of the miracles, but even more because he is gentle and faithful and just.
Now King Gundaphoros is furious. He throws the Holy Apostle Thomas in jail and spends all night thinking up the most cruel and inventive way possible to kill him. King Gundaphoros’s brother also hears about this. He gets so mad that he takes to his bed, ill unto death.
Next morning, King Gundaphoros comes to his brother Gad to tell him the cruel and inventive way he has invented to kill the Holy Apostle Thomas. But Gad dies in the middle of the conversation.
As the angels are carrying Gad’s soul into heaven, they show him all of the dwelling places of heaven and ask him, “Where would you like to stay?”
Gad sees this magnificent palace, and says, “I would like to stay there.” The angels say to him, “You can’t stay there because that palace has already been taken.” “Who’s palace is it?” “It’s your brother’s palace, the one that Thomas built for him by helping the poor and by curing illnesses and casting out demons.” Gad says, “Can you let me go back and buy it from him?”
Angels let Gad’s soul go back into his body, and as he is being put in his burial robe, he pops up and tells his brother King Gundaphoros about the palace in heaven that Thomas built of him, and they let Thomas out of prison and everyone is baptized and lives happily ever after.
The point of this story is that God sees things differently than we do. We often want a palace on earth. God sets up a palace in heaven. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.
Jesus says, “When you pray, do not make a big show of it.” So nowadays, appearances can be important. We want to make a good impression on other people. In Jesus’ day, however, appearances could be everything. It was called an honor-shame society. Everything depended on how much honor you had, from your birth family, or from what you did in public.
As I say, impressions are important in our society, but not as important. I sometimes wonder whether our society is not so much an honor-shame society as a wealth-poverty society, or a success-failure society. We want success, we want outcomes, we want verifiable results.
I wonder whether Jesus might say to us, “Do not just pray for results that you want to see, don’t just pray for people you like or outcomes you support. Pray like this,”
Our Father. . .(Not my Father, our father, all of us)
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, (Not necessarily my kingdom or our kingdom, your kingdom)
Thy will be done. (Not necessarily my will.)
Because, quite frankly, we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We are tiny and broken and mortal, and we do not have the spiritual power to make our prayers matter that much. But God does things with our prayers we had not expected, perhaps not imagined or that we never even find out about. So pray for crazy things, Pray for impossible things. Pray out of love, because God sees things differently than we do.
Jesus says, “Don’t make a big show when you give alms, when you give money to the poor.” Because in Jesus’ day, you could increase your status, raise your honor level, by giving to the deserving poor. Jesus might say nowadays, “Don’t just give your money for results, for positive outcomes. Give money also to situations that you think are hopeless. Preposterous dreams, because you love.” Because, quite frankly, we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Our money will not do that much. It will not keep us safe. It will not save the world. But when we share it and use it in love, God does miracles with it. God sees things differently.
Jesus says, “Don’t make a big show out of fasting.” When you give up something for the sake of God, whether it is to feel closer to God or to benefit others, don’t just do it for results, for expected outcomes. Sacrifice out of love, above all else. Because, quite frankly, we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Our sacrifices will not do that much. But God takes our sacrifice and sweeps it up into God’s sacrifice, into the cross which saves the world.
Do what you do out of love, not appearances or results. Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, because God sees things differently than we do.