by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“When the disciples said: ‘We have seen the Lord’, Thomas answered: ‘Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands…I refuse to believe.’…There were many other signs that Jesus worked and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book. They are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that, believing this, you may have life through his name.” John 20, 19-31
I have long believed that Thomas has been an undeserved target of commentators intent on presenting him as a well-intentioned disciple of Jesus but one whose faith didn’t measure up. But there is something about Thomas’ directness and matter-of-fact honesty that I find appealing. Moreover, his refusal to believe the testimony of Mary Magdalen and his brother disciples that they had had encounters with the risen Christ is a reminder to me that nobody comes to faith merely by being instructed by somebody else. When Mary Magdalen, under instructions from the risen Jesus, went to the disciples who had hidden behind locked doors, and announced: “I have seen the Lord!”, they remained locked away in fear of the Jews. Mary’s experience of the risen Jesus was not contagious. It could not transfer to the disciples simply through the telling. In similar fashion, the elation of the other disciples as a result of Jesus appearing to them and breathing the Holy Spirit on them, was not transferable to Thomas. Put simply, Thomas had to experience a personal encounter with the risen Jesus. Mary couldn’t experience the resurrected Jesus for the frightened disciples and they could not experience the resurrected Jesus for Thomas. The paradox lies in the fact that that it is really faith that kept Thomas longing for a personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus, not doubt.
But there is something else that is worthy of our close attention in this part of today’s gospel-reading. For the very first time in my reading of today’s gospel (and I can recall reading it several times every Easter over the last 63 years) I found myself asking: “Why on earth did ten of the disciples remain locked in fear behind closed doors for another week after the risen Jesus had visited them and breathed the Holy Spirit on them?” I can accept that, in the prevailing culture, the testimony of women was regarded as unreliable. So, Mary Magdalen’s report might have been easily dismissed. But they had experienced their own encounter with the resurrected Jesus and were still tightly gripped by fear. I can only conclude that they were not convinced that even the resurrected Jesus would be able to come to their help if the Jews who had murdered Jesus put their minds to murdering them too. And then the penny dropped for me, too. I had to admit that there are times when I, too, don’t act as though I really believe that the resurrected Jesus and the God he worshipped can and will help me in my struggles, disappointments, griefs and failures.
That realisation fronts me with the questions: What do I really mean when I say I place my faith in God? What do I know of the God in whom I say I believe? Do I treat God like a predictable slot machine that I can control?
As I stayed with those questions, I recalled something from the Letter to the Hebrews which stopped me in my tracks: “It is impossible to please God apart from faith. And why? Because anyone who wants to approach God must believe that God exists and cares enough to respond to those who seek him (sic).” (Hebrews 11: 6) If I am not careful, I can delude myself into accepting that regular participation in religious practices helps me to manage God, to settle into being comfortable with God., to thinking that I know God. By going that route, I can forget that God if totally free, beyond the grasp of human knowledge. A logical consequence of that kind of thinking can lead one into fundamentalism or literal translation of Scripture.
A corollary of this is that rigid, systematic practice of religion risks breeding a sense of certainty in people who come to see themselves as believers in God. As a result, they start to act as though they think they know what is in the mind of God and how God will deal with those who are unfaithful.
In the wake of a 9.1 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean in 2004, a disastrous tsunami with 9 metre high waves wreaked havoc in the eastern coastlines of India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The death toll was estimated to be in excess of 225,000. This prompted some religious leaders to state categorically that this was God’s way of punishing humanity for its immorality. In more recent times, a religious member of the Israel Knesset (parliament) gratuitously proclaimed that an earthquake that shook Jerusalem was a punishment from God for the Israeli attorney general ‘s having given gay and lesbian couples the right to adopt children. With equal certainty, people volunteering to be suicide bombers in different countries throughout the Middle East state that what they are planning to do is in accord with the “will of God”.
On the other side of the ledger, Abraham Lincoln pointed out to the people of America that those from the North and South who were engaged in the Civil War both “read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes God’s aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered.”
Can any of us seriously state that we believe in a God whose will and motives are crystal clear? The language of faith and religion is rich in symbols. In an article written by the scholarly Rabbi Daniel Polish and published in the Catholic journal America in February 2009, there is the sobering statement: “Faith, if it takes its symbols literally” becomes idolatrous.” (“A Little Unbelief…is not always a bad thing, Daniel F. Polish, America, February 02, 2009) The Rabbi went on to quote another Jewish philosopher and scholar, Martin Buber (1878-1965) who wrote: “People draw caricatures and write ‘God’ underneath.”
Back now to the Thomas of today’s gospel. This was a disciple of Jesus who dared to speak openly and honestly rather than quietly pretend that he understood things that bewildered him. This was the Thomas who struggled to understand some of the poetic language Jesus used in his speech of farewell to his disciples before he went to his death. Jesus, attempting to assure his disciples, had said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Have faith in God and faith in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places;…I am indeed going to prepare a place for you, and then I shall come back to take you with me…You know the way that leads to where I go.” This was just too much for Thomas, who interrupted Jesus: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14: 1-5). A little earlier, when Jesus had announced his plans to return to Bethany where an attempt had been made to kill him, Thomas effectively had said to the other disciples: “The boss has a death-wish. He’s out of his mind. He’s going back there to be killed. So, we had better humour him, and go with him to our deaths, too.” (cf John 11: 16).
Let’s not overlook the fact, that Thomas had ventured out of the locked room. If not, he would have been there when the resurrected Jesus appeared first to the disciples. Fear had not gripped him as it had his companions. But he did want proof for himself, and, it is clear that he did want Jesus. So, when Jesus came a second time and invited Thomas to inspect the wounds that were proof of his love, Thomas saw immediately that the conditions he had laid down were non-sensical. The presence of the resurrected Jesus led him to make a profession of faith that had been made by no other follower of Jesus. No one else had actually acknowledged that Jesus was truly divine, that Jesus was God. Thomas’ words: “My Lord and my God” constitute the supreme expression of faith, the climax of John’s entire Gospel. Can my faith come even close to his?