John the Baptist gets plenty of love. Off the top of my head, I think he is featured in the Lectionary at least three times each year. We hear the story of his ministry as a baptizer (often multiple times a year), his beheading at the hand of horny Herod, and, at least in Year A, the story of his crisis of faith in prison. With all the love that we pour on John, I can’t help but wonder why this particular story doesn’t stigmatize him in the same way the story of Thomas’ doubt follows him around. Why do we call Thomas “Doubting Thomas” but not call John “Doubting John the Baptizer”? There are other stories about Thomas in the Bible. In fact, Thomas is the disciples who proudly announces that he will follow Jesus to his death (John 11:16) and at the Last Supper inquires as to they might follow Jesus to the Father (John 14:6). So why all the dap for John and no love for Thomas?
The answer, I think, lies in this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, and it comes with the help of the Matthew, our narrator. You see, Matthew uses this story to reintroduce a word that has been absent since the birth narrative, Messiah. The scene is set this way: John has been arrested and while in prison he heard stories about what the Messiah was doing. In Greek, Matthew uses the Greek word “Christ,” which essentially means the same thing. Anyway, by choosing this story to be the first place he identifies the adult Jesus as the Messiah/Christ, Matthew sets this encounter up not so much as one of doubt, but of assurance.
John has heard the stories of Jesus preaching and teaching and healing all sort of people with all kinds of conditions, and he is hopeful. John sends his disciples, at least as I read this story, in expectation of the answer. He wants to be sure that the one who he saw as the Lamb of God really is the one that he was waiting for. Even though the message and ministry of Jesus doesn’t quite look like burning the chaff with unquenchable fire, John seems to know, or at least that’s what Matthew wants us to think, deep down, that Jesus really is the one.
I’m not big on calling Thomas a doubter. In fact, I don’t think he doubted at all. Equally so, I’m glad we don’t put the weight of the doubter tag on John the Baptist either. These were both good men, faithful disciples, who loved Jesus, but needed to see his Messiahship with their own eyes. I, for one, can understand that.