Doubt Whispers

Matthew 28:16-20 – Trinity Sunday & 1st Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, June 15, 2014

“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17)

doubt-300x276Jesus, alone on a mountain with the inner circle of eleven disciples, tells them to, “Make disciples of all the nations.” It’s called the Great Commission. And then Matthew ends.

How did Jesus feel about giving that instruction? Or what did Jesus think about the glaring absence of Judas, the traitor who made the twelve become eleven? Was he confident or nervous about Peter’s leadership? We don’t know, for here—as elsewhere—the Gospel writer doesn’t share much about Jesus’ interior thoughts. Frequently, the faithful reader only knows Jesus’ spoken words. Maybe Jesus’ silence could be called the Gospels’ great omission?

But we do know something about “the eleven” at the end of Matthew.

They worshiped Jesus. The ancient Greek could also be translated as “bowed.” Whether it’s translated into English as the more emotionally charged worship or the physical action of bowing, all of the disciples apparently participated in this final response to the risen Christ.

Along with worshiping/bowing, some of Jesus’ inner circle—maybe ten of the eleven, maybe only one—felt . . . doubt.

All worshiped, some doubted.

If worshiped can be translated as bowing, it’s important to note that doubt (the Greek distazo) can be translated as hesitate. When I consider doubt, I understand it as a feeling, an emotional or spiritual response to my faith. It can also be a reaction to so-called facts. For example, during an election year I may doubt the veracity of a poll funded by a particular political candidate. I doubt the results will be fair and unbiased. We rightly have doubted the research on smoking underwritten by companies that manufacture cigarettes. You can easily add your examples about why or how or who you doubt.

But isn’t “hesitate” a different word and a different matter? A person that hesitates, as with someone bowing, will display a physical—observable—reaction. And even though a person hesitating may outwardly do nothing, that nothing is obvious. If every knee bowed except for one (or ten), the hesitation, the absence of movement, would be glaring.

Did some of Jesus’ followers doubt? Was Matthew referring to an inner, inexplicable emotion?

Or did they, instead, hesitate? The scripture seems to claim every disciple worshiped/bowed before Jesus . . . but did some at first appear reluctant to place a knee on the earth or to lower their heads in humility before all of them worshiped him?

Let’s leave the (all) worshiping and (some) doubting disciples for a moment and consider Matthew’s Jesus. I sure wish we knew what Jesus felt when the disciples doubted/hesitated. In a sense, I wish there were a bonus verse 18 in the final chapter of this Gospel. Here’s how Matthew 28 (NRSV) reads:

17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .

How did Jesus “feel” about the disciples doubt? Matthew provided no reaction, immediately shifting to Jesus’ declarations and the “Great Commission.”

How about one of these suggestions right after verse 17:

18Jesus grew angry with those hesitant to believe his teaching, but knew he couldn’t change their hard hearts. 19And Jesus came and said . . .

18Jesus, perceiving their troubled hearts, knew some doubted now, and would only come to trust his teachings later. 19And Jesus came and said . . .

18Jesus, understanding the difficulty of following his way, felt compassion for even the most doubtful of disciples. 19And Jesus came and said . . .

Or why not, just to keep the number of verses exactly the same, add three little words to verse 17:

17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted until he spoke.

But we don’t know how Jesus felt. The Jesus described by Matthew at the Gospel’s end is not irked or intuitive or sympathetic. And there’s not even a hint that Jesus’ presence or words dispersed the clouds of doubt in one (or ten) of the mountaintop disciples.

Doubt remained.

In your faith, what role does doubt play?

For me, I doubt my writing. Writing is essential to my faith. It’s one of the best ways to open myself to God’s call, to Christ’s presence, to the Spirit’s comfort. When Dad died (and then eighteen months later Mom died), I had to write about it to make sense of it. Staring at a blank screen, and then daring to add words, quelled the figurative demons of loss, regret and melancholy. I can’t not write about daily experiences or attempt to tell fictional tales. And yet I doubt my writing. I doubt because I’m sure my words don’t matter much to anyone.

I doubt my praying. I’ve prayed at hundreds of funerals and weddings and thousands of worship services and had people say, “What a wonderful prayer.” I didn’t believe them. I pray in my private room and in my private way and most of the time I think I’m a hypocrite. How dare I mutter anything? If God were a Holy prankster, She’d unleash a lightning bolt and burn the letter “H” onto my forehead.

A colleague I trusted and respected once said hurtful things to me about my spiritual life. At least that was my perception when he off-handedly he thought I was spiritually shallow. Hey, no one should judge another! But what if he was right?

Doubt whispers. Doubt lingers. Doubt seduces. Doubt reigns.

Isn’t it amazing that Jesus ignored the disciples’ doubt and instructed all of them, including the one or ten that doubted, to go forth and share the good news?

Sure, I’d like to add a verse, or add a few words in a verse, to make doubt easier, more understandable, less fearsome. (Or to whisk doubt far, far away.) But I can’t and won’t. And shouldn’t.

I doubt the best parts of me. Do you doubt the best parts of you? And yet the risen Christ, on a metaphoric mountain, continued to talk, to invite everyone into the ongoing story of God’s love for creation. Doubt may whisper; faith still beckons. They are always voices in the story.

(Image from here.)

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  1. Larry,

    You may doubt your writings, but I receive them like a thirsty parched desert, grateful for the watering, even of tears. Grateful for your faith, insights and willingness to put yourself out here. Praying I may have the same courage. Thank you!

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