A reflection on John 4:46-54 for Sunday, October 16 at Mosaic Baptist Church.
Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.’ The official said to him, ‘Sir, come down before my little boy dies.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your son will live.’ The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, ‘Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him.’ The father realised that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live.’ So he himself believed, along with his whole household. Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.
John 4:46-54 (NRSVA)
A ‘second sign’ prompted by desperation – and curiosity.
If there is anything the title ’royal official’ tells us, it is that the one who approaches Jesus in our story is a man of means and connection.
As a result it may initially surprise the reader to learn that this leader has personally travelled to present Jesus with his request. In this short account we learn that this man commands trusted ’slaves’ capable of travel – yet at a time when many would argue he is needed at home – he has left. Perhaps he is hoping his status will increase the odds of gaining an audience with the famous healer.
At any rate, this mission is not handed over to others.
There are, we imagine, good and personal reasons for making this journey himself – the most obvious being that this is his son. Perhaps there are other reasons as well. A child’s death can also impact others: Is there a wife and mother in this household? Are there siblings? Has this one been raised to inherit? Is he a prince of sorts? And all this to say nothing of the wider ’household’ and their own fears and heartache.
The distance between Capernaum and Cana is just under 27 kilometres, or 17 miles. Our text righty recognises this as an increase in altitude in this father’s repeated request for Jesus to ’come down’. Our official has a plan: bring the alleged performer of signs home. It is clearly the plan of a desperate parent. His official title may open our passage. For the rest of John’s telling he is referred to only as a ’father’.
We may be tempted to see all of this is an act of fledgling faith on this official’s part. He undertakes this journey not knowing what he will encounter. Will Jesus even be there upon his arrival? Will crowds prevent him even catching a glimpse of Jesus? In the best scenario, with all going well, what are the chances of the rumours of Jesus’ healing powers actually being true?
Every reason not to go…and every reason to go.
Fortunately, the journey is fruitful. He gains an audience with Jesus. And he begins to…beg.
Yes – beg.
I wonder how accustomed a ‘royal official’ is to kneeling before people other than his superiors? Surely people have bowed before him before. Perhaps this man has bowed before state officials. He is less likely, however, to have taken such a stance before homeless healers. Is his begging another sign of his desperate predicament? I suspect so.
Yet Jesus’ response to this man’s action is not as affirming as we might expect. At best his is a to call for a deeper ’belief’. At worst it overlooks all these actions as poorly motivated by a desperate situation and an all too common curiosity. Jesus, rather bluntly, rebukes him with ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.’ It is a statement clearly directed at this man rather than any crowd intrigued by this leader’s presence.
Yet this rabbi highlights what is lacking: he harbours a desire to ’see signs and wonders’. Of course, this does not deter this father from his plan. He simply repeats his question: ‘Sir, come down before my little boy dies.’
Everything in us is expecting Jesus to resign and make the journey to Capernaum. Yet Jesus is asking for an deeper belief than has already been displayed: a trust beyond what is visible. ‘Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your son will live.’
Of all the commands Jesus may have given, this is probably the last one this father expects. Yet his response is a remarkable insight into his growing faith in Jesus: ‘The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way.’
And this without any visible change in his – or his son’s – circumstances. In fact, he won’t have any evidence at all until he passes his servants the next day.
A long period of trust in the absence of sight.
John’s commentary from here has echoes of the first sign in this gospel: The changing of water into wine. There too those in positions of power and authority miss out on witnessing the miracle. They are baffled by the wine’s quality. Those in the know, however are the disciples and servants in whose hands the sign occurred.
The lowly and humble have ’seen’ while the privileged have not.
Perhaps we could say the same of this encounter. If anyone witnesses this healing surely it is the household who have remained by the dying boy’s bedside. Only these have seen.
And yet we would have to say that even these do not know what they have seen before the encounter with their master and their discovery of the alignment of the words of Jesus and this young man’s recovery. Somehow they both parties need the perspective of the other before they can truly see this ’second sign’.
And once they have, the result is a faith that envelopes more than the ‘royal official’. It encompasses the ’whole household’.
And this despite the fact that the leader of this household was never a direct witness to this sign.
Are there moments you have indirectly witnessed a sign that deepened your faith? What was this like?
Can you recall a time when you needed the faith and perspective of the community in order to ‘believe’?
What is your experience of trusting God before you have encountered evidence?