IN DEFENSE OF THOMAS
Ask yourself this question - How would you like to be remembered two thousand years from now in three words of less? It’s hard, if not impossible, for us to come up with something like that. It almost seems unfair to try to sum up the entirety of who we are in such a short phrase. It’s interesting though that history seems to have been able to do that with several individuals from scripture. We almost have a word association just in hearing their names: Peter - the Rock; Judas - the traitor; John - the beloved disciple.
Those descriptions seem to fit because they highlight significant things about each of these individuals. Peter as the first pope, with all his strengths and weaknesses led the Early Church after Jesus’ Ascension and proved to be a firm “rock” of leadership for the Church. Judas, despite whatever good he might have done in his life, after selling out Jesus for 30 silver pieces, well, it’s kind of hard to recover from that and so, he’s simply known as the traitor. And John, the faithful friend of Jesus, the only one of the 12 to stand at the foot of the cross, the one Jesus entrusted the care of Mary, His Mother for the rest of her earthy life, it seems obvious why he is remembered as “the beloved.”
But sometimes those word association descriptions don’t completely work. The characterization usually given to St. Thomas based on today’s Gospel, seems unfair. For centuries Thomas has been labeled “doubting” - and it’s given birth to a really negative image. We call people “Doubting Thomas’” when describing someone who’s cynical, or negative. All of this because Thomas gives voice to the disappointments that he had with himself and the others as he speaks with candid honesty in saying “I will not believe.”
Seriously, why wouldn’t he react like that? At this point, there was so many things that had happened that he couldn’t believe, couldn’t wrap his mind around:
- It was scandalous to him that Jesus would be betrayed by one and denied by another of the chosen 12.
-It was impossible for him to consider that the rest of them couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to do anything to stop what had happened to Jesus;
-It was inconceivable, unimaginable to him that the one who had given them faith, hope and love; the one that they had left everything in their lives behind to go and follow - that Jesus was left for dead on a cross.
Now he’s hearing these reports that Jesus had been raised from the dead,
that Jesus had accomplished what he had promised he would,
that indeed hell has been defeated,
that death has been conquered.
Thomas is hearing all of this remarkable news from the same people who had been such failures so recently, who could blame him from being beyond skeptical? So Thomas’ seems to dismiss this incredible news of the Resurrection of Jesus, an event that would change human history forever with those simple words “I will not believe.”
But if we are able to move past that initial moment of heart-wrenching honesty, maybe we can look at Thomas in a different light and even consider changing the idea of Thomas being labeled “the doubter” to something else, perhaps Thomas “the faithful.” Because in truth, his doubting words don’t match his actions of faith.
Because the week after this whole “doubting” scene, look at what happens - Has he let his doubts drive him away from the others? Has he let his unbelief discount all that he had come to believe that Jesus had taught? Does he let his realization of what complete and utter failures he himself was as well as the others were in not standing up (or even standing by) Jesus at his hour of need, does he let that drive him to loneliness or despair?
No, a week later, we find Thomas is there in the locked room with the others. And because he remains faithful WITH his doubts, because he has been honest about his unbelief, Jesus the risen savior is able to meet him. Jesus is able to heal him of the unbelief that had been so deadly to the heart of the believer. That’s why Thomas can be such a great model for us.
Because truth be told, We have our doubts too, don’t we? Sometimes it’s borne from the actions or lack of actions from others. We know that there are things, scandals that have plagued our Church over the last few years and every time the news reports one of these things (or for perhaps ulterior motives recycles old stories of past failures) they bring a flood of angry, disappointed, heartbreaking, nauseous feelings to all of us. Things like that shake our faith which is why Pope Francis is being so upfront and direct about dealing them so quickly into his papacy.
We have our doubts about our politicians, our government leaders... Seeing tension, animosity, extremes fighting each other with no compromise in sight that leaves us questioning our faith in those institutions.
Closer to home there’s things that makes us wonder, makes us question, makes us doubt. Things that undermine so many important aspects of our Christian lives. We’re challenged by thoughts like - with so many people – friends, relatives of ours even – ending up divorced, can anyone really stay married forever anymore? What’s the point in being the nice guy or playing by the rules - everyone cheats, everyone looks out for number one ?
And if we’re somehow able to navigate through all those difficult areas, the questions of unbelief don’t seem to end. So many people struggle to believe that God is personally interested in each one of us? It’s heartbreakingly sad for me sometimes trying to help some recognize this blindness...And the reason why it’s so sad for me is because I’ve been there, I’ve doubted that before... - everyone goes through that at some point in their lives. But being on the otherside of it, I can’t tell you how frustrating it is watching people who are unable to imagine that God has something greater in store for them. They put it in words like... God’s too busy to be worried about whether I am living a life of excellence. What does it matter if I screw up, I’m still better than that guy. Worst case, I’ll just go to confession (making that sacrament a type of car wash rather than an opportunity for us to grow in holiness).
Thomas, formerly known as “the doubting” - Thomas the faithful though gives us an essential lesson to deal with all this: and here it is - Having doubts is okay... giving into them is not.
Because that night when Thomas encounters the risen Christ as he gathers in that locked room full of flawed, failed, broken individuals like himself, yes as he gathers with the Church... It is there that he realizes something within him wanted to see past the scandal of the cross, that something within him wanted to see past his own doubts and disbelief. When he does his vision is transformed: All he is able to see is the hands and the side as he beholds the risen Jesus Christ in his midst.
For us the challenge is the same. Not to deny our doubts, but not to give into them either. Rather,
- bringing them here among brothers and sisters who are also pained by scandals,
- bringing them here among a family who wish to move past the legitimate fears we are so often
challenged by from some harsh realities of the world;
-bringing them here among others who have also doubted that God is so interested in us loves
us personally that He actually has a dream for us... A dream that if we ever truly considered it
could radically open our hearts and minds to conceive something greater for ourselves than we
If we like Thomas allow ourselves not to be limited by our doubts, but to be moved from unbelief to belief as well, what we will be remembered as 2,000 years can be quite simple - Jesus’ faithful disciples.
Posted by Fr. Jim Chern