When was the last time you walked into the ocean? Or sat on the sand with the surf washing up over you? Do you remember the force of the tide, the effort needed to maintain your footing or seat, to counter the push and pull of the current against your body so that you could remain planted in the sand, firm, upright? Do you remember saying to yourself, “Okay, now, I’ve got it,” just before a wave hit you and knocked you over?
Jesus’s listeners in today’s Gospel are trying to find their footing, to find a place to stand upright. “You will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he” (Jn 8:24). His listeners are desperate, pressing Jesus for details – so desperate that, even though they don’t understand what he is saying to them, nevertheless, “many believed in him” (Jn 8:30). But the current of Jesus’s truth will be too strong for them; by the end of this chapter, these same people who believed will try to stone Jesus (Jn 8:59). Their belief is without a firm foundation, unable to brace them against the next wave.
I often wonder, as people who read the Scriptures in a world and a context so far removed from the ones in which they were written, how much we lose, or have lost, in our comprehension of them. Can we really comprehend what they are saying, if we don’t have some understanding of the world in which they were written? We hear the Scriptures read, or we read them ourselves, and because we either don’t know the backstory, or because we are so familiar with the text itself, we read and our hearts are not stirred; we read, and we are not convicted; we read, and a fog of incomprehension descends upon our minds, and we are not converted. Now I know this is not always the case. I know this is a gross generalization and exaggeration. But I know too, at least for me, many parts of Scripture leave me yawning. I don’t know why something is important, and I can’t be bothered figuring it out. It would be better if I were at least scratching my head wondering what it means. Instead, I simply move on until at last a ray of light penetrates the fog of my incomprehension. And that is the danger. When our incomprehension fogs our understanding, the meaning, and the power of Scripture is lost to us, and even for us. When that happens, Scripture loses its ability to stir, convict, and convert us.
The Apostle Thomas has been caricatured as “doubting Thomas,” but that’s unfair, and it’s inaccurate. I think the opposite is true. Thomas is heroic and exemplary. There are two scenes in the gospels prior to what we’ve just read that shed light on Thomas. One is when Jesus was trying to say “good-bye” to his disciples, just prior to his being seized in the garden at Gethsemane. Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled…. I go to prepare a place for you… and you know where I am going….” No. Not so. Not at least for Thomas. It seems only Thomas had the courage to admit that he is clueless. “My Lord,” Thomas says, “We don’t have the slightest idea where you are going! How can we know the way?”[i] (It’s a good question; an honest question for us, too. How can we know the way, especially when the path is dark and the risks are many, and the fear is great, and the route is unsure?) How can we know the way?
We all know the story, and my bet is that at one time or another we have all acted it out in our life. We have been that son or daughter who has squandered our inheritance away in dissolute living. We have been the envious and sullen elder sibling, resentful of the attention lavished on the returned prodigal. Perhaps we have even been the loving and generous parent spending our time hoping against hope and scanning the horizon for the return of the one who was thought to be lost. Perhaps at different times we have been different characters in the parable. Perhaps we have even been all three at the same time.