Poor “Doubting Thomas,” the protagonist (with Jesus of course) of today's Gospel. St. Thomas the Apostle doubts once and gets saddled with that unfortunate moniker for all of human history. Which seems rather unfair. His friend Peter not only doubted, but denied Jesus at a most crucial moment, and what happened to him? He is called “Prince of the Apostles” and has a basilica named after him in Rome.
After all, Thomas had more than enough reason to doubt. Jesus come back from the dead? Are you kidding me? Preposterous. His friends, Thomas must thought, were most likely laboring under some mass delusion. Jesus may have picked Thomas for his probing mind, his mental acuity, or his inability to be deceived, so perhaps Thomas was simply more demanding than the others, at least when it came to proof. On the other hand, perhaps Thomas should have believed what so many of his friends, so many witnesses, had told him. I wonder if the rest of the disciples, filled with joy at what they had seen, were annoyed at him. Spoilsport!
But Jesus isn’t annoyed at all. Notice that Jesus doesn’t castigate Thomas, or say, as he did to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan,” when Peter had not understood things completely. No, Jesus begins by saying to the assembled crowd, “Peace be with you."
Then what does he do? Does he scold Thomas? Does he condemn him before the group? Does he cast him out of the community? No, he gives Thomas what he needs in order to believe. Thomas needs physical proof? Jesus will give it to him. “Put your fingers here and see my hands,” he says. This enables Thomas to proclaim his great profession of faith: "My Lord and my God!" Then Jesus gently reminds others about the value of faith.
Jesus gives Thomas exactly what he needs to help him with his doubt. Just as Jesus does with the other individuals to whom he appears. Later, at the Breakfast by the Sea, in the Gospel of John, he will meet up with Peter. Jesus knows that Peter needs forgiveness after denying him three times during his Passion. So Jesus gives him the opportunity to reconcile—three times. When he meets the grieving Mary Magdalene at the tomb, she is overcome with sadness, and can’t even recognize him. What does she need? Just to hear her name: “Mary.” And that’s just what he gives her.
The Risen Christ is gentle with doubters, with those who need reconciliation, and with those who are so confused that they cannot see him. Are we? Our church today seems filled with people who, when faced with doubt and sin and confusion, seem to want only to scold, castigate and condemn. But look at the way Jesus deals with doubt. He shows. He forgives. He calls someone’s name. In such gentle ways are people brought to know Jesus.
Image: "Still Doubting," by John Granville Gregory.
James Martin, SJ