Historical Cultural Context
A common literary form appears throughout the Bible to describe the divine vocation of a great patriarch or prophet who is called to be the leader of God’s people. It can be found in the vocation stories of Moses (Ex 3:4-4:9); Gideon (Jg 6:11-36); Jeremiah (Jer 1:1-10); and Jesus’ disciples (Mt 28:16-20; Lk 24:33-53; Jn 20:19-27; Jn 21:1-19).
The complete form has five elements which can be identified in today’s passage as follows.
The setting for Jesus’ appearance to commission the disciples is a house with locked doors in which the Eleven are gathered.
In Jesus’ nosey Mediterranean society, people suspect that those who gather behind locked doors are up to no good. Unlocked doors allow the children, the official “spies” or “snoops” in the village, to wander in and out of homes at will, keeping everyone on the up and up.
For this reason, John notes that the Eleven were hiding nothing but were rather protecting themselves against attacks from Judeans who did not believe in Jesus.
This observation is truer of John’s time (especially after 90 CE) than of Jesus’. The locked doors have no relationship to Jesus’ ability to penetrate them without opening them.
Confrontation, Reaction, Reassurance
The sudden appearance of the risen Jesus (confrontation) startles the disciples (reaction), requiring that Jesus set them at ease: “Peace be with you!” (reassurance).
Three points characterize this commissioning ceremony: (1) the commission is formal (“As the Father has sent me, so I send you” Jn 20:21); (2) they are to preach repentance and forgive sins (Jn 20:22-23); and (3) the commission is confirmed by Jesus’ sending of the Holy Spirit (Jn 20:22).
It falls to Thomas rather than the newly commissioned apostles to raise an objection. He implies that the apostles may have suffered hallucination, an alternative state of consciousness.
He expresses strong doubt about the reality of the risen Jesus. His demand to stick his fingers into the wounds of Jesus in the story created about him by John is well known.
Ordinarily, deities would be miffed by such objections, but in the heavenly commissions reported in the Bible the divine response is very different.
In this story, Jesus returns once again to the disciples chiefly to reassure Thomas, and through him all followers who experience difficulty believing without seeing.
The sign is the invitation to Thomas to stick his fingers in the wounds as he wished (Jn 20:27). Jesus’ gesture works; Thomas is convinced.
Modern Western believers have become rather familiar with “literary forms” in the Bible over the past twenty-five years. Parable stories, healing stories, the letters of Paul—all these and more are reported in the Bible in stock, stereotypical (i.e., unchanging) forms.
After learning about these many forms and their structure, believers (and often even preachers) say: “So what? What does this mean in the real world?”
Today’s Gospel describes how Jesus commissioned his followers to bring new members into God’s covenant community. He had done this earlier in the farewell discourse (Jn 13:20; Jn 17:18).
Careful study of the literary form and its structure convinces scholars that the commission is addressed to all disciples and is not limited just to the Eleven. All believers are commissioned to bring new members into the community.
How does each one of us respond to this commission?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University