Why do we call him doubting Thomas?
Yes, I know there’s this passage, here, about him. Jesus appears to the disciples and says, “Peace be with you.” And Thomas isn’t in the room.
Soon afterwards Thomas hears about the Lord’s appearing and says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Sometime later Jesus appears again and says, “Peace be with you.” And Thomas is there this time. Jesus says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands”—a curious point to which we’ll come back—and then, “Do not doubt but believe.”
So is this why we call him doubting? Because Jesus himself said, “Do not doubt but believe”?
Just to put it out there, the other disciples were just a doubtful as Thomas. Yet we don’t call them things like skeptical Simon, at-a-loss Andrew, or befuddled Bartholomew.
So, why Thomas?
This question becomes even more absurd when we look more broadly at the man Thomas. In the other three Gospels, he’s barely noticed. His name is merely mentioned—and only one time in each narrative. Other than that he is one of the twelve, we learn nothing. Everything else we know about him comes from John.
With respect to John then, he shows up in two other passages before today’s.
The first is in John 11, you remember, that chapter where Lazarus dies. A messenger comes to Jesus and says, “Lazarus, the one that you love, is very ill, about to die.” Then Jesus waits for a couple more days where he is before going to raise Lazarus. He tells the disciples plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” And Thomas responds, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.”
What is behind this response? Was Thomas being sarcastic? Like, “Yeah, right, I ain’t going back there. Last time you were that close to Jerusalem, Jesus, we almost all got killed. Yeah, guys! Hey, great idea! Let’s go also, that we may die with him.”
I don’t know. Maybe we should call him snarky Thomas, not doubting.
The only other time we see Thomas is just before Jesus says some very well-known words. Addressing his disciples, Jesus says something about going to his Father’s house, where “there are many dwelling-places.” He then adds, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Then Thomas says to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
And Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
In this episode Thomas seems simply not to get it. Perhaps a better moniker would be confused.
Yet we know Thomas as doubting.
So, anyway, I’d like to suggest a new name for Thomas today. Granted, I’m not about to presume it will catch on. We Christians have been calling Thomas doubting for nearly 2,000 years; and one piddly sermon, I know, won’t turn that tide.
Nevertheless, looking at the broader Gospel of John suggests a more accurate name for Thomas; and, by extension, a more accurate name for us. For we are all very much like Thomas. We all have times of doubt, times of confusion, and even times of snark. And thus we have a lot to learn from this character, this doubting disciple.
So for today, I propose we call him unseeing Thomas. And here’s why.
The Gospel of John plays a lot with the verb to see. The word has many different shades of meaning in Greek, just like it does in English. When we say, “I see,” we can mean any number of things: I see something, a physical object; I understand; I feel; I believe; and so on. It’s the same in Greek. In fact, one commentary I read this week claims that there are fully 20 different meanings of the word “see” in the Gospel of John.
So we encounter Thomas, one of the twelve apostles who lived closely with Jesus throughout his ministry—who saw Jesus daily in other words—and yet somehow throughout it all failed truly to see. Or, to put it another way, Thomas failed truly to understand who Jesus was; he failed to believe. And in this sense he was unseeing.
Think back four weeks to that Sunday when Jesus healed the man born blind. Thomas was like so many others in that story. There were religious leaders, remember, who asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They didn’t really see the truth, did they?
Then there were the man’s parents. They feared the religious leaders and said something along the lines of, “We don’t know how our son now sees. Ask him, for he is of age.”
There were others in the story too—neighbors, people in the community who had grown up around the blind man and no doubt knew him; and, arguably, even some of the apostles—for whom it was the same. No one in the story could believe it.
No one could believe that Jesus had performed a miracle, that the man who had been born blind could now see. No one, that is, except Jesus and the healed man himself!
Then the story ends with a sort of twist. All the people who could see physically at the story’s beginning were unable truly to see—or, to believe—at the story’s end.
This seeing-yet-blindness—this unseeing—then, is what characterizes Thomas (and many others) throughout the Gospel. It is at the root of his doubt, of his confusion, of his snark.
And—I think you know this already—this unseeing is at the root of your spiritual struggles, and at the root of mine.
We are like Thomas; we are unseeing.
In society we hear about changing economies, wars over oil, and duplicitous world rulers; and we want to give up on humanity.
In our corporate life as a church we get caught up in our individual concerns and causes and lose sight of the great and marvelous calling Jesus has given us together, to reconcile a tweaked universe to God.
In our families we can lose sight of what we’re about—siblings angering one another and holding lengthy grudges, for instance, instead of rejoicing in all the stunning variety found in the closeness of blood relationships.
In our personal lives, too, we fail at prayer and other spiritual disciplines.
We seek to control others, or to control circumstances, to manipulate our environment, so that things will go well for us and those we love. But in doing these things, it is so easy to lose sight of Jesus, that he is giving sight to the blind despite our unbelief, that he is in control of our lives and the cause-and-effect circumstances that take place continually all around us. In doing these things we forget to trust Jesus; we knock him off his throne as King of kings and Lord of lords and we put ourselves there instead, in his place. In our own doubt, like Thomas, not only do we fail to trust; more significantly, we fail to see.
But notice how today’s passage ends. Jesus appears among the disciples a second time. And this time Thomas is here. Jesus looks at him and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands . . . Do not doubt but believe.”
Does Thomas actually touch the resurrected Jesus? We don’t know! The scriptures merely say that Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!” not that he touched Jesus.
But—whether he touched him or not, that’s beside the point!—in his answer there is no doubt, no confusion, and no snark; only belief, only true seeing.
Thomas is our example this morning, for we are very much like him: doubting. But Jesus is right here in the midst of us, right now. Our only right response is to answer, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
Blessed are those who truly see; blessed are those who believe.