Hope for the cynic

September 15, 2016
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By Elishama |


The following was originally a homily by a Catholic priest under the pseudonym of Elishama:

The doubt of Thomas has always fascinated me and I have long wondered about its cause. Today I will present an interpretation. It is my own. I think it has an insight but I hope it is not falsifying the memory of a great saint.

In John 20 we read: "But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "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." He wills not to believe! In other word he has made a choice, and that choice is to disbelieve.

Why the grave doubts? Is it just natural unbelief at being told such an incredible thing? Maybe, but it may also include something more. Thomas may be choosing not to just doubt the Resurrection but to doubt Christ Himself. Maybe Thomas was starting to become more than just a simple doubter (a skeptic), becoming a cynic. What could cause this? It could be disappointment with Jesus – He did not do what Thomas and the others had expected Him to do (become the messianic King of Israel and make them leaders in His court). But I do not think that is enough. I think it was not just disappointment with Jesus but disappointment with himself. Thomas did not live up to his own expectations. Let’s look.

The first time that we hear Thomas speak is when Jesus was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus was sick and Martha and Mary had sent a message to our Lord about him. When Christ indicated they should go to Bethany, which is not too far from Jerusalem, the apostles objected: "Teacher," they said, "only a few days ago the Jewish leaders in Judea were trying to kill you. Are you going there again?" "Lazarus is dead" responds Christ, "Come, let’s go see him." Thomas then steps up to the plate: "Thomas, nicknamed the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let’s go, too—and die with Him.’"

The apostles had a good point here. There were people in Jerusalem that wanted Christ dead so why put Himself and all of them in harm’s way? Let’s not go! But Thomas makes a bold statement in front of all. In effect he says, "I am willing to follow with You even if it means death!" Thomas thought he was courageous and true – willing to risk his life to follow the Lord. But what happened when the opportunity actually arose; when Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified? Thomas fled like the rest.

Thomas did not know himself. When he discovered he did not live up to his own ideals or vision of himself, that he had a dark, weak and cowardly side, he became profoundly disappointed. Filled with a new and ugly revelation about himself he was thrown into an existential crisis. His self-doubt and disappointment with himself was probably leading to anger – anger at himself, anger at Christ, even anger at life. Thomas was at risk of becoming a cynic.

There are those who are disappointed by others and those who are disappointed by themselves. The more profound effect is caused by self-disappointment: a shattered image of oneself. Those hurt by others can fall into sorrow and fearfulness (of being hurt again) but rarely into cynicism. Cynics are often made out of those who have betrayed their own ideals, been the culprit in hurting or betraying others, and discovered that they are not the persons they liked to think themselves. Cynics are self-made men.

What to do with this negative self-revelation? They go into a kind of denial. It’s not just me who fails to live up to my own principles and ideals, they rationalize, it’s everyone. Everyone secretly is out for himself. Everyone has his or her own price at which they can be bought.

The cynic rarely recognizes himself as a cynic. Rather he likes to see himself as a realist. One who sees the world, people and life as they really are. As David Wolf puts it, "Idealism is what precedes experience, cynicism is what follows." The cynic thinks himself as simply a person who goes through life with his eyes wide open. At most he may think himself a skeptic. But a skeptic may doubt what people say as factual or true, a cynic doubts people and their motives.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes a cynic as a person "disposed to rail or find fault" and as one who "shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasm."

There are those who have been cynical most of their lives. They populate the criminal class and the inveterate liars and manipulators one can find in all walks of life. But many the cynic started off assuming the best about himself and maybe about others, but when he did something that profoundly disappointed himself – betraying his own ideals – he became scandalized and disillusioned. This lost faith in oneself can lead to self-recrimination and from there to doubting the good in others. He starts to see the benevolence or good in others as either a sign of their Pollyanna naivete or a façade for self-serving motives. Having found corruption where he least expected to find it – in himself – he projects his disillusionment onto all. He despairs of there being any goodness or hope in the world, having found unexpected evil within himself.

We meet a full-fledged cynic in the Gospel. No, it is not Thomas. His name is Pontius Pilate.

Pontius Pilate was probably a careerist and self-promoter in the Roman government. It had led him up the bureaucratic ranks and now he was Procurator of Judea and Syria, appointed by the Emperor Tiberius in the year AD 26. It was not a great posting but a beginning...or maybe an end? He would retain his position for ten years. The first portion of his rule was characterized by a complete contempt for Jewish religious scruples and customs. At the beginning of his term, the historian Josephus tells us, Pilate set up Roman Standards at night in Jerusalem. This broke with previous practice and inflaming Jewish feelings (it was seen as sacrilegious since the Romans treated their emperor as a god). It was only when riots were going to break out that he had them removed.

Soon afterward, he stole money from the Temple to pay for an aqueduct from the Bethlehem area to Jerusalem. A large crowd appeared outside his fortress at Caesaria to protest. Pilate ordered his soldiers to disguise themselves as Jews and when infiltrated into the crowd, pull out clubs from beneath their robes and beat the protesters. They killed many. In Luke 13:1 it mentions another occasion when Pilate mixed the blood of the Temple sacrifices with that of Galileans he had murdered.

About six years later after the trial of our Lord, Pilate made his final outrage. He ordered the massacre of a group of Samaritans on Mount Gerizim. The Governor then had him recalled and sent to Rome to explain his actions to the emperor. He was stripped of his rank and, in disgrace, exiled to Gaul where Eusebius says he ended his own life in AD 37.

Christ was brought to Pilate by the Sanhedrin to be condemned to death. They were setting up an innocent man and Pilate probably knew it. Pilate could be unjust himself but maybe his pride did not like it when others were trying to pull his strings, and so he resisted. His wife also had a dream and warned him "to have nothing to do" with Jesus. He tried to avoid the decision being forced upon him but in the end gave in.

When the crowd was being agitated into calling for Christ’s crucifixion Pilate summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" Christ responded, "My kingdom is not of this world." "You are a king, then!" exclaimed Pilate. Jesus answered, "…For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."

"What is truth?" Pilate retorted. (John 18:33-38) He wasn’t seeking an answer, it was a rhetorical question. He no longer believed in truth even when its personification was standing right in front of Him.

Now we come back to the famous episode with doubting Thomas. Thomas may have been disappointed with himself, with his failure to stand by Christ at the crucial hour, and it was turning into disappointment with Christ. He was beginning to separate himself from the other apostles. It was starting to undermine his very faith in Christ. But then something happens:
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"
Seeing the Resurrected Lord Thomas professes his belief in Jesus Christ as "My Lord and my God." He had discovered the alternative to cynicism. Rather than focusing on his own failure and disappointment, he began focusing on Christ, Who He is and what He has done."It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man" (Psalm 118:8) – even if that man is oneself.

Thomas was now beginning to believe in Christ again, but in a new way, and with that comes seeing himself in a new light too. Thomas failed because he was weak, lacked faith, and was a sinner. We all are. But he is also a forgiven sinner, a redeemed man, and Christ is now offering him a new life, a new beginning, a new hope, a new mission. So stop trusting in himself and his own strength and trust instead in Christ.

Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

With a new focus and graced with newfound conviction and strength Thomas would now be able to fulfill his earlier claim: To be willing to die for Christ. Tradition holds he became a missionary to Parthia, Persia and India. He may have arrived at the Malabar coast of India around AD 58. After 15 years of preaching and having established the Church there he was martyred in about AD 72. The Church in southern India claims him their own and holds that he is buried in Madras at the Church of Saint Thomas.

Thomas shows us the way to overcome disappointment with ourselves. He shows us the way to avoid cynicism. Stop looking at yourself! Do not let past failure define you. Put your faith not in yourself but in God. Trust in Christ. Keep your eyes on Him. In the Apostles Creed we profess, "I believe in Jesus Christ," not "I believe in [insert own name]." It is Christ who is our hope, our life, and our salvation. He who can change death into life can ultimately change you too. He can make us a new creation if we let Him. What is impossible for man is possible for God.

But the struggle within us continues. It does not completely end this side of the grave. Saint Paul warned us that the "old man," our fallen nature, still exists. But we are not discouraged for we are already putting on the new man in Christ, and we know He has won the final victory.

Easter is the celebration of the dawning of a new hope. Death is overcome, sin is forgiven, a new life is given. Let us live in the light of that hope. Christ is risen! May He change your darkness into a new and wonderful light.

Article copyright: Elishama, all rights reserved. Please contact author for rights to republish or translate.

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