Jesus is Compassionate...Again
Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” – John 20:24-25
The Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter always reminds me of another Thomas in my life: my parish priest when I lived in Juneau, Alaska. Father Thomas Weise, called “FT” by many of the young adults in our congregation, reminded me of Jesus in so many ways. He was endlessly kind with charisma to boot, joyful most days and hopeful the rest, a beautiful soul who attracted others to Christ the way that moths are attracted to flame or college students are drawn to free food. Whenever this reading came up in the lectionary, he would always grin and point out that Thomas gets a bad rap in Scripture. I’m inclined to agree with him—and I’d like to propose a change to what we call this well-worn pericope.
Often called the “Doubting Thomas” story, or sometimes simply headlined in NIV Bibles with “Jesus Appears to Thomas”, today’s Gospel reading features the Apostle Thomas’ famous statement that he’ll believe in the risen Christ once he has some proof. Although Thomas and his request are indeed central to the story, I argue that a better title for this section of scripture would be “The Understanding Christ” or perhaps “Jesus is Compassionate… Again”.
Renaming familiar parts of Scripture can be a helpful way to look at the text from a new angle. Amy-Jill Levine, in her book Short Stories By Jesus, offers alternate titles for some of the parables, including the Prodigal Son, the Unjust Judge, and the Workers in the Vineyard. My favorite of Levine’s suggestions is to rename (and therefore re-frame) the Workers in the Vineyard as “the parable of the Surprising Salaries”. Likewise, Candida Moss suggests that the section of Mark 5 called “The Hemorrhaging Woman” should more accurately be called “The Man with the Flow of Power”, after the way that the aforementioned woman is healed: passively, by merely touching Jesus’ clothes. Titles matter, and this is also the case with John 20:19-31.
I used to read or hear these words and envision Thomas as a stubborn child refusing to believe his friends, a petulant denier who just can’t get over himself. But after a decade in ministry and a whole lot of life experience, that’s not what I see now. Instead, I see a person deeply wounded, a friend devastated and beyond hope. Thomas is so raw, so torn apart by the grief of losing one of his best friends to a violent execution—to say nothing of the shame of having run away from that friend in his hour of need—that he cannot and will not accept any comfort or hope from others. Thomas isn’t stubborn; Thomas is simply devastated.
My heart is moved further for Thomas by the very next line: “Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them….” Thomas had spent an entire week living in this grief and pain and hopelessness while the other Disciples talked about seeing Jesus again. He must have felt so alone. Maybe he even felt guilty, like Jesus chose to appear to the other disciples without him. A week can be a very long time when you’re living in your own head.
So what happens when Jesus visits the Disciples again? I think that through a history of homilies and hearing this passage through the frame of Thomas’ “doubt”, we expect Jesus to scold Thomas or punish his disbelief, but Jesus does the opposite—he gives Thomas exactly what he asked for. He invites Thomas to touch his wounds, not with sarcasm or pettiness but with gentleness. He meets Thomas’ despair with compassion and understanding. I’d like to think it was Jesus’ attitude that helped Thomas believe just as much as touching his wounds; Thomas must have seen Jesus show compassion so many times in his years with him that he would recognize such kindness immediately.
This story comforts me that God knows what we want and what we need—and that it is a rare beauty when these two things are the same. God isn’t stingy. God isn’t a petty authoritarian holding back what we desperately need in order to play some cosmic power game. God delights in giving us the things we need to move from doubt to belief. Jesus’ compassion and understanding are more central to the story than Thomas’ (or my) doubt is—and thanks be to God for that.