Commentary on John 20:19-31
Maybe you have had this experience: one of your friends comes back from seeing a movie, or going to a concert, or visiting a beautiful place and says to you, “You have got to see this!”
You listen with interest, even as you are trying to distinguish between what is hype and what is real.
It is not exactly right to say that you don’t believe the testimony of your friends. It is more that you don’t have any experience of your own to compare to theirs. To know what you believe about what they are reporting, you will have to go to the movie, or try the product, or see the sunset in that particular spot. In order to offer your own testimony, you need to have your own experience.
The evangelist, John, knows this. John’s gospel exhibits a pattern in which someone hears about Jesus and needs more — and then receives what they need to come to their own experience of the life Jesus is embodying in the world. The earliest example is in John 1, when Philip says to Nathaniel, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1:45) Nathaniel replies with skepticism: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” All Philip can say in reply is, “Come and see.” Nathaniel will have to encounter Jesus and draw his own conclusion, which, in fact, he does. Within three verses, Nathaniel is saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
The woman at the well goes into town after her meeting with Jesus and says to her neighbors, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” John says that many of them believed on the basis of the woman’s report, and many more believed because they heard Jesus themselves. The story ends with some of them saying to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).
Fast-forward to Easter morning. Mary tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” John does not tell us if they believed her testimony or if they tried in any way to verify it. He merely continues the story by saying that on Easter evening, they were behind locked doors, afraid that the forces that had conspired to bring about the execution of Jesus might come next for them.1 Instead, Jesus comes into the secured room, saying, “Peace be with you.” He shows his hands and his feet to them demonstrating that the Risen One will be forever recognizable as — and only as — the Crucified One.2 The disciples rejoice to see him. They tell Thomas what Mary had told them: they “have seen the Lord.”
Thomas replies with the post-resurrection equivalent of, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46), or the Samaritan woman’s “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (John 4:11), or Mary’s “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15). Bearing Nathanael’s skepticism and Mary’s broken heart, Thomas needs more.
Thomas will not be shamed into believing, or shamed into at least keeping his unbelief to himself. Neither will Thomas ignore what he knows in order to believe something he does not know. Thus Thomas’s journey to faith make his story especially important for the audience of would-be believers (see also John 20:31) for whom John writes.
We will return to Thomas as an example of someone who receives what he needs to believe, but to get there, we need to go by way of John 20:23 with its commission to forgiveness and something more.
In her 2010 presidential address to the Catholic Biblical Association, later published as “The Lamb of God and Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel,” Sandra Schneiders considers the translation of John 20:23b. Traditionally, translators read an “understood” second occurrence of tas hamartias in the text and see both genitive plural pronouns as possessive genitives. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain [the sins] of any, they are retained.”
Yet the second conditional clause does not include the word for sins at all, and the function of genitives is ambiguous. Schneiders writes, “A more adequate reading would be the following: ‘Of whomever (possessive genitive plural) you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven to them; whomever (objective genitive plural) you hold fast [or embrace], they are held fast.’ In other words, the sins in the first member are ‘possessed’ by the forgiven. It is the persons, not sins, in the second member who are the ‘object grasped or held fast.’”3
Schneiders’ points of argument for this translation include a caution against reading the Johannine text through the lease of Matthew 16:19 and the note that, “Theologically, and particularly in the context of John’s Gospel, it is hardly conceivable that Jesus, sent to take away the sin of the world, commissioned his disciples to perpetuate sin by the refusal of forgiveness or that the retention of sins in some people could reflect the universal reconciliation effected by Jesus” (page 28). Grammatically, linguistically, and theologically, the “traditional” reading of John 20:23b as speaking of the retention of sins is unconvincing.
If Schneiders’ translation and interpretation are accurate, then the exchange between Jesus and Thomas is a focal instance of what, the week before, Jesus spoke of in the second condition. “If you hold fast to someone, they are held fast.” Jesus appears to Thomas, holding him fast through doubt to faith.
Just as Nathanael, the woman at the well, the man born blind, Mary Magdalene, and the disciples who were behind locked doors on Easter evening are held fast through doubt and partial understanding until they receive what they need to believe, so also will those “who have not seen” (John 20:29) be held fast. The blessing received by the characters of the stories “that are written” (John 20:31) extends to those who are reading. By breathing the Holy Spirit onto the disciples, Jesus make it possible for them to continue his work of holding fast to others and the accompanying work of forgiving sins.
As we experience the story of Thomas, we are invited to trust that Jesus will keep showing up, alive, and with a body that holds together the worst that has happened to him and his risen life. He is eager to reveal himself, not only through appearances but also through the written word. Again and again, he will offer that wounded, living body to his own beloved ones, until finally the whole creation will be held fast in the peace he offers when he makes himself known.
- On the problematic phrase, “fear of the Jews,” see the Working Preacher commentaries on this text by Robert Hoch (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2808) and Elisabeth Johnson (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1991).
- As Robert Smith puts it, “Even after Good Friday and Easter, God continues to turn to the world through the wounded Christ,” (Wounded Lord: Reading John through the Eyes of Thomas (Eugene Oregon: Cascade Books, 2009), ed. Donna Duensing, p. 6.
- Sandra Schneiders, “The Lamb of God and Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73 (2011):27.