In John’s Gospel Thomas missed the worship service where Jesus revealed himself to the disciples. So while the disciples did not believe Mary’s earlier encounter, so too Thomas did not believe the disciples. Like many biblical characters the figure of Thomas has received many interpretations. He has been characterized as a dull and unwilling to believe. Others, particularly in the modern period began to look to him as an image of sound realism with a commitment to be swayed only by the facts. As is so often the case our reading of the Bible becomes a way to project and promote our own values. Most simply what we find in the text is that Thomas was really no different than the disciples who do not believe Mary.
The challenge then is to understand the significance of Thomas not only seeing but feeling, entering into, the wounds of Jesus. What does this mean? I find it hard to speak about this encounter. Some theologians have referred to the intimacy of this scene, pointing to the symbolic eroticism in which the wound and side of Jesus are cast as feminine. When Jesus’s side was pierced on the cross and blood and water flowed from it some theologians read this as the place where the church is birthed. And so some have read Thomas as experiencing an intimate union with Christ in this scene. However, we also cannot forget that these are wounds. These spaces are the result of the violent transgression of Jesus’s body and here is Thomas re-enacting that violence. With his nails and a spear Thomas is getting his proof.
Reflecting on these possible images I feel unable to offer some clear reading of this scene. The best I can do is point to it as a powerful account of how fine the line is between intimate vulnerability and the abuse of power, the demand of vulnerability. And furthermore point to this image as happening within the church and how the church is called to steward that vulnerability and guard against its abuse. The church in this scene is trying to keep its doors closed to protect itself for fear of the world around it but Jesus reminds them that the possibility of intimacy as well as the sources and gestures of evil are pervasive.