A Tale of Two Denials

Today we heard the story of Thomas’ refusal to believe the testimony of the other apostles that they’d seen Jesus. Concluding, no doubt, that they were out of their minds with grief, he denied that they could have seen the Lord, and avowed that he wouldn’t believe it until he could see and touch the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side.

The following week, Jesus appears in their midst again, this time when Thomas is present. Jesus does not reproach him, but matter-of-factly offers Thomas what he had asked for: come, put your fingers in the nail holes in my hands.

During Holy Week, we heard the story of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, during his Passion, as Jesus had foretold. Again Jesus did not reproach Peter, but only looked at him, with compassion I’ve always thought. Peter’s realization of what he had done caused him to leave, weeping bitterly.

But what exactly was the problem with Peter’s denial? I was thinking about this yesterday. Is it simply that he denied knowing Jesus? But later, we hear Joseph of Arimathea being spoken of approvingly as a follower of Jesus “although a secret one, for fear of the Jews.”

On the face of it, Peter was doing something very pragmatic: he was trying to stay close enough to Jesus to find out what was going on, without being arrested himself, presumably so he could share what he’d found out with the rest of the disciples. Surely this is understandable? but perhaps it is intended as a cautionary tale against the ends justifying the means, a perennial human temptation.

I think the real problem was not Peter’s denial, but his earlier, recklessly absolute, avowal that he would never deny Jesus, under any circumstances, even under threat of persecution or death, and even after Jesus tried to warn him. Peter’s impulsive heart led him into arrogance: even if others betray you, I never will.

Thomas denied the truth of something he had not seen, requiring evidence before he would believe it. Peter denied that he had anything to do with Jesus, after having sworn that nothing could cause him to do so.

Which is why it seems more than a little unfair that it’s Thomas who is stuck being forever known as “the Doubter”, while Peter is so well thought of that people bring out their sick friends and family in the hopes that even Peter’s shadow might fall on them!

But perhaps it is not only Peter’s faith, but his repeated failures and repentances, that make him the rock on which Jesus built his church. As Jesus said, he came to call sinners. Only a sinner can be forgiven; only a repeated sinner can experience the fullness of Divine Mercy by being forgiven over and over again.

Thomas demanded evidence, and was given it. Peter swore he wouldn’t need forgiveness, and was given it after he realized he needed it after all. In response to both denials, Jesus gave them what they needed.

St Thomas, pray for us
St Peter, pray for us
Lord, have mercy upon us

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3 Responses to A Tale of Two Denials

  1. pvcann says:

    Yet in teh Greek it doesn’t say ‘doubt’ rather the import of the text is that Jesus says to him ‘Why are you unfaithful?’ which is a nuance I like and adds strength to the cartoon you included.

    • Even in English it doesn’t say doubt, which makes the epithet even more unfair! 🙂

      But does Jesus really say to him “why are you unfaithful” in the Greek? In the English, the verse that is typically construed that way is simply an affirmation that Thomas believes because he has seen, and blessed are those that believe even without seeing. For years I heard that as an implied judgement against Thomas, until one day, hearing it at mass, I realized there was more judgement in my head than in the text itself. Especially because that last part makes so much sense to put into a gospel that was being written for the generations to come, as the eyewitness generation was dying out: that context emphasizes “those” rather than Thomas.

      • pvcann says:

        My take is that it carries the meaning lacking in faith because he has to see rather than like those who have not and yet believe, it fits that way.

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