Common English Bible (CEB)
49 The royal official said to him, “Lord, come before my son dies.”
50 Jesus replied, “Go home. Your son lives.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and set out for his home.
51 While he was on his way, his servants were already coming to meet him. They said, “Your son lives!” 52 So he asked them at what time his son had started to get better. And they said, “The fever left him yesterday at about one o’clock in the afternoon.” 53 Then the father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son lives.” And he and his entire household believed in Jesus. 54This was the second miraculous sign Jesus did while going from Judea to Galilee.
As I come to the tenth day of this Lenten season, I think it’s time to take a bit of a breather from the week, slow down, and take stock in the journey so far.
We’re one quarter of the way through this season, and you may have noticed some patterns. As you can tell, I’m trying to stick mostly to John, for a couple of reasons. One, I’m following the scriptures prescribed by Thomas C. Oden and Joel C. Elowsky in their book On the way to the Cross. It’s part of my lenten practice of taking time out of my day to do more personal spiritual development, and listen to the Word. The book also juxtaposes the text with insights from early church fathers and theologians, which is intellectually and spiritually satisfying.
Secondly, John is a challenge for me. Of the four gospels,it is the most unrelenting in its purpose. This particular passage is a perfect example why. Whatever kind of personality we want to think Jesus has, whatever we think of when we imagine him in our minds, is probably a lot nicer than what is offered here. This Jesus is not Mr. Nice guy. Compassionate, yes. Charismatic, of course. Nice?
See, if we were ever to come to Jesus to ask for help, as this royal official did, I’m pretty sure we think Jesus is going to be pretty nice about helping us. He is a Son of God after all, and if God is love, why wouldn’t Jesus be a nice guy?
Well, in this case I think it comes down to context, who’s doing the asking, and who did Jesus come for. Jesus is most at home when he’s dealing with the outcasts of society, and the most confrontational when he’s dealing with the powers that be. I would imagine that this royal official guy usually got his way in most cases. His life was not like the vast majority of the people at the time, and it certainly wasn’t the kind of life that the Samaritan woman had from earlier in the Gospel. So his son gets deathly ill, and who should he turn to but a famous faith healer like Jesus? It only makes sense. And who is Jesus to refuse him? That would be out of the question.
So he gets to Jesus, and Jesus responds to his plea with a pretty curt response. I’m going to go ahead and imagine that Jesus sighed in exasperation before saying “Unless you see miraculous signs and wonders, you won’t believe.”
Why on earth would Jesus say this to a guy he barely knows, on his hands and knees, begging for help? That seems a bit out of character, don’t you think? Well, not in the Gospel of John. As I’ve mentioned before, the purpose of the Fourth Gospel is so that you would believe. Belief is the linchpin of the story; none of it makes sense without it. Early on in this narrative, Jesus is driving this point home: He didn’t come to do a bunch of magic tricks and entertain the crowds. Jesus came so that the world could be saved through him, and in order for us to be a part of his reign, we need to believe in him. Signs and wonders are cool, but that’s not the point for Jesus.
I can’t help but think of The Empire Strikes Back in this case, when Luke is training with Yoda in the swamp. Luke’s X-wing is sinking into the swamp where it crash landed, and Luke is whining and moaning about how he’ll never get it out again. Yoda tells him to use the force to lift it out, but Luke protests, thinking it is too big. Yoda chastises him, and says “You must unlearn what you have learned.” Luke tries to raise the ship himself, but to no avail. Yoda tries to teach him a lesson, but Luke walks away, saying “You want the impossible.”
Yoda, like a beast, then lifts the X-wing, just as he instructed Luke to do. When Luke, all goggle eyed, looks up and sees the ship intact and out of the swamp, he says to Yoda, “I don’t believe it.”
Yoda replies, “That is why you fail.”
So you see, signs and wonders are not the point. Belief is the point. Belief enables, empowers, and emboldens us to participate in the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit. Jesus heals the son, but the healing isn’t the point for him. Belief is the point.
As much as I may at times struggle with my beliefs, I need to remember that I’m not the first. However, by the Grace of God, I pray that I have belief enough to see with eyes unclouded the truth that has been handed down to me through the ages. I believe, because that is what is asked of me.