John 20:19-31 Our friend, Thomas
a reflection by Dan Spragg
There was an article that appeared in the New York Times in 1997 of how a prisoner during the time of the Khmer
Rouge in Cambodia was saved from execution on account of Aesop’s fables. Here’s some of the story:
Kassie Neou owes his life to Aesop and his fables, which he told over and over again, night after night, to the
teen-age boys who guarded him 20 years ago in a Khmer Rouge torture chamber.
”You’re the tortoise! You’re the hare!” the boys teased each other, delighted with the story, Mr. Neou
Every night, sometimes exhausted and bloody from a day of beatings and interrogation, he said, he told the
stories to one shift of guards after another.
”I was lucky because I knew those stories by heart,” said Mr. Neou…
…”I told the stories all night long, with my ankles in leg irons like everybody else,” he said. ”And because of
that, I became someone who was needed by the guards.”
Then came the night when the prisoners were roped together and marched from the building to be killed.
Above the loud squeaking of their leg irons, Mr. Neou said, he heard the voice of the 13-year-old guard who
was in charge: ”I need him. Quick! Pull him out.”
One of the guards hid him, holding a finger to his mouth for silence. Another, newly arrived prisoner was
roped to the others and was killed in his place. Mr. Neou was spared…
From 1975-1979 the Khmer Rouge Government turned on its own people. It was responsible for ripping apart
society and is suspected to be responsible for the death of more than one million Cambodians. They engaged in
severe torture and executions. Cambodia has never been the same. The article in the NY Times was published at the
time when the world was preparing for the trial of Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders and tells of how at the
time it felt as though Cambodia wasn’t ready to face its past. With many Cambodians of a certain age at the time,
either being a victim or a victimiser living side by side. The memories were painful enough.
…Cambodian society is still too fragile to support the burden of a trial, Mr. Neou said.
”If facing the past will jeopardize the present, I do not think it is a good idea,” he said. ”These people live
among us, and we cannot wish them away. I support the national policy of reconciliation and building peace,
because this is what Cambodia needs first. I choose peace first, and justice later.”…
While his country was wrestling with the uncomfortable task of opening up to its past and seeking justice Kassie
Neou told the rest of his story.
When he was being beaten and accused of working for the Central Intelligence Agency, Mr. Neou said, he
memorized the faces of his torturers, sustaining himself with thoughts of retribution.
”I told myself that when my time comes, I will take revenge five times worse than what they are doing to
me,” he said. ”As a human being, you have that kind of anger.”
Three years later, when the Khmer Rouge Government collapsed, he said, he joined a flood of hundreds of
thousands of people across the border into Thailand. Among the refugees at the Khao I Dang camp, he said,
he recognized one of his torturers, a young man he had known as Comrade Han.
”He turned completely pale when he saw me, and he began to shake,” Mr. Neou recalled. ”I asked him, ‘Oh,
when did you arrive?’ He could not talk because of his fear, and he only said, ‘My wife is sick and my baby is
Mr. Neou, one of the few educated people to survive the Khmer Rouge killings, was now the administrator of
an aid program at the camp.
”Because of his fear, and because his baby was dying, I completely changed my mind about taking revenge
through anger,” he said. Instead, he took the man to a feeding center, where he arranged for care for his
wife and child and gave him money for cigarettes.
”When I did this, the guy was trembling and he had tears in his eyes, and he thanked me,” Mr. Neou said. ”At
this point I realized that I had made my revenge.”1
Our scripture today tells of how Christ, Jesus, appeared to his disciples following his death and resurrection. This is
the passage that quite often gives Thomas a bad rap. ‘Don’t be a doubting Thomas’ the saying goes. I feel as though
that’s unfair to Thomas because there is, of course, the possibility that other learnings can be taken from the story.
The assumption is because he is absent at first, then wants his own tactile experience of the risen Jesus and because
he says after that, ‘Then I will believe’, that he is full of doubt, and doubt is most certainly a bad thing – that’s the
assumption and the conclusion often hastily made. But, there could be other things to think about. Here’s what I
noticed about the story.
For the full article, see, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/06/28/world/cambodian-aesop-tells-a-fable-of-forgiveness.html
accessed on 7/4/21.
The disciples have locked themselves in a room, fearing for their lives because of how the authorities had treated
Jesus. By association, they thought they were next. Thomas we’re told is not there with them. Classically it’s implied
that he isn’t there because he is wracked with doubt about Jesus’ resurrection. What if there are other reasons?
What if Thomas wasn’t there because the crucifixion had been too awful and so he had walked away from the
group? What if he’d had an argument with Peter (who seems like he could be one to argue). Or, and I quite like this
one, what if Thomas wasn’t there because he, unlike the rest of the disciples, wasn’t afraid of the authorities and
was out living and getting on with his life rather than hiding away in some locked room somewhere letting fear be in
the driver’s seat! I don’t discount the interpretation that implies Thomas isn’t there because of his doubts, I just
think there are other ways to see it. Anyway, it’s interesting Thomas isn’t there because Jesus comes among them,
greets them in peace, blesses them with the Spirit and commissions them in the act of forgiveness… and it is
immediately after this that Thomas is now the focus.
Our English translations use the word ‘forgiveness’. The meaning of the Greek is quite ambiguous but more aligns
with the idea of ‘letting go’ of ‘releasing’ and the interpretation of ‘sin’ is more along the lines of ‘brokenness’. This
isn’t new to us, we’ve talked about this before as we have talked about our understanding of ‘sin’ too often being
centred on some sort of moral failure rather than something that is actually much deeper than how we do or do not
behave. Jesus commissions these disciples in the power of the Spirit to ‘release people from their brokenness.’ And if
they don’t, those people are retained ‘in their brokenness. The image of being slaves in Egypt would help them, as it
does help us to understand the concept. It’s not about magic. We don’t conjure some sort of spell when we forgive
or don’t forgive. Rather, it is about whether we allow ourselves to hold others bound to their brokenness.
Back to Thomas. Jesus hones in on him in the 2nd part of the story immediately following the disciples
commissioning into the mission of forgiveness. Could it be that what we are seeing here is the restoration of Thomas
back into their group? If he has removed himself, here he is welcomed with a greeting of Peace and with Jesus
meeting him where he was at. Jesus meets Thomas after his absence with peace and grace. He is met with invitation
and encouragement not judgement and accusation.
What if this was a parable of grace? An example of ‘releasing someone from brokenness.’? Brokenness will
undoubtedly always have an effect on our relationships with our people. What if this is a story about the restoration
of community? What if the commissioning in the power of God’s Spirit that Jesus imparts is a commissioning to the
mission of the restoration of community, the building back of relationships torn apart by brokenness? Perhaps, we
could wonder if a life embodied with resurrection is the Spirit’s presence enabling us in forgiveness and restoration
and the commissioning to share this outside of the locked doors we might be hiding behind?
In one sense, Jesus isn’t that interested in locked doors. Or maybe he is because that is where he met the disciples –
where they were – even if that place was behind a door locked in fear. That sounds good enough to say that perhaps
this is how the Spirit of God is with us too? Jesus meets us where we are at in grace, with a greeting of peace inviting
us to live a life empowered by the Spirit of resurrection where fear is not in the driver’s seat. We are not called to
live behind locked doors of fear, insecurity, anxiety, scarcity, hatred.
What if Thomas was the one who needed to forgive the disciples? He, after all, wasn’t hiding behind locked doors.
What if he was already living the resurrection life and it was the disciples who had cowered away in fear, losing their
nerve, losing their hope. What if they had distanced themselves from him? What if they were the ones who had
fractured the community? Whichever way, I hope the release, the letting go of one another’s brokenness went both
ways. That’s good for everyone if that can happen. Whichever way we look at it, release from the effects of
brokenness had to happen. They were restored back together and sent by Jesus to spread the good news of life and love and goodness that is more powerful than fear, or death, or hate, or evil.
I imagine we wouldn’t have the story of Kassie Neou if he had let his anger and lust for revenge rule in the moment
of interaction with his once torturer. It’s a far more powerful story the way it did go. Perhaps we should say that
revenge is best served, not cold, but as ‘the release from brokenness’ which always restores people back to
relationships. Revenge might be best served as an act of love. That’s because life and love and goodness are always
more powerful than death, hate, evil and fear. This, I would say, is the presence of the resurrection life being made
You will notice today’s image being a broken bowl that has been repaired using the Japanese technique called,
Kintsugi. Kintsugi acknowledges that events happen in life which do cause harm, but these are best dealt with if we
name them as part of our story, don’t try and hide the cracks, and realise that there is beauty in broken things that
have been restored. In fact, the process of repair is what makes them all the more beautiful. Forgiveness is that
which has the power to do just that. Forgiveness is the power of resurrection made real in our midst and community is reformed with the gold threads of grace holding us together.