John 4:43-54. The healing of the official's son.
We are often told that John's Gospel doesn't so much concentrate on the "what happened" but the "why it happened". It's therefore very reasonable to approach any passage in the gospel with the question "Why?" and not just about the events: we can ask "why does John record this?" and "why does John put it like this?" and "why does John put this story here whereas Matthew/Mark/Luke put it there?"
I therefore want to ask a few "why" questions of this passage, and see where it takes us. These questions are (in the order they appear in the passage):
- Why did Jesus say "a prophet is not without honour, except in his own country" and then go back to his own country?
- Why did they then honour him?
- Why did Jesus appear reticent to heal the official's son?
- Why did he then do it?
- Why did the official go without trying to drag Jesus with him?
- Why didn't Jesus go to see what happened?
- How did John know that the son was healed?
- Is this the same story as the Centurion's servant?
So, in order:
Why did Jesus say "a prophet is not without honour, except in his own country" and then go back to his own country?
Well, that all depends on whether or not Galilee really was "his country", of course. It's certainly where he spent a lot of his ministry but, unlike Matthew, Mark & Luke, John's gospel is mostly set in Jerusalem. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which wasn't in Galilee but Judaea, but grew up in Nazareth, which was in Galilee. I think it's fair to view Galilee as Jesus' country in the spirit of the saying, for the saying means that those that know you best (who grew up with you) don't treat you as anyone special (something famous people often refer to as a nice thing about going home). The trouble is, when you are something special, they don't see it - hence the words of those in the Synagogue in Nazareth (Mark 6v3): "Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?"
Incidentally, this story is where Mark places the "prophet without honour" quote. So why then, did Jesus go there if he didn't expect to be honoured? The reason, I suspect, comes within the next two questions.
Why did they then honour him?
If a prophet is without honour in his own country, why did Jesus' own country honour him? Or did they? Tom Wright suggests (in "John for everyone") that they didn't - they saw the signs and honoured those, but they missed where the sign were pointing. They read the clues and didn't bother trying to solve the puzzle. They read the directions, but didn't bother seeing where they led. They welcomed a miracle-maker, but didn't honour the messiah.
Why did Jesus appear reticent to heal the official's son?
I think Jesus had returned home hoping for more. But he didn't find it. He didn't get the opposition and ignorance that the "prophet without honour" quote would suggest that he expected, and neither did he get the "you are the messiah" response that his signs pointed towards and he may have hoped for. And not unreasonably, either. After all, it was from Galileans that the first disciples had come, before Jesus had given any signs of why they should follow him. They left and followed and got their proof later - a theme I've preached on before, that faith seems to always precede proof - and now there were signs and yet no-one seemed to grasp them.
And on top of all this, here was an official asking for another sign. No wonder Jesus is reticent, no wonder he says: "unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders you'll never believe" (v.48).
Why did he then do it?
There's something different about this official. Something that says that he's not after a sign, but compassion from the one to whom the signs point. Something that says that he's beginning to understand.
Why did the official go without trying to drag Jesus with him?
Quite simply: because he believed in Jesus already. As I've said, he wasn't after a sign, but a compassionate miracle. He went because he had the faith to do so. He had faith - and then received the proof. And the proof fuelled the faith and so on.
Why didn't Jesus go to see what happened?
This may seem like an odd question to ask (but you're probably used to that from me by now), until you realise that, in John's gospel, this is only the second miracle (or "sign" as John prefers) that Jesus did (although verse 45, alluding to 2v23, suggests that there were others that John doesn't record). The reason I ask it is because, as the first recorded healing, I'd want to go and see what happened when I said "go - your son will live", wouldn't you? I think the reason Jesus may have wanted to go was that he was fully human. The reason he didn't go was that he was fully divine. And part of the tension of those two statements meets in my question: why didn't he go? Because, being divine, he didn't need to. But also because, being human, his faith was being grown. I've mentioned before that the people Jesus raises from the dead are progressively dead for longer each time he does it (just died, a few hours, a few days), and have speculated that God was growing Jesus' faith in readiness to believe that he himself would be raised. If that's right, then this healing forms part of that pattern: Jesus' "human side" (if you like - not a perfect description but it'll do for now) was growing in faith. So he didn't go because he didn't need to and because his faith was growing.
How did John know that the son was healed?
To me this is a good question - if no-one went with the official, how did they know the outcome? Unlike some other of John's stories (such as Peter and the fish to pay the temple tax), this one has the ending recorded, so that we know how it turned out. A simple human explanation would be that the official himself came back to say so. Another that one of the disciples went to see what happened and reported back. Another that this official became part of the church later on and told his story there. It's a good question, but only so that we can trust the story. It has so many possible answers though, that to not trust it would be silly.
Is this the same story as the Centurion's servant?
Maybe. This is, after all, a "royal official", which may be the same as a soldier. The Centurion's servant is recorded in Matthew 8 and Luke 7. That story is set in Capernaum, a town in Galilee. In Matthew, the centurion comes to Jesus, in Luke he sends the synagogue elders and some friends. They may be facets of the same story, but each is told to show a different theme. Matthew is interested in the healing of a non-Jew, Luke in the authority of Jesus, John in the sign (and someone actually reading it correctly). Does it matter? Probably not. But I find it interesting.
Every sermon, I'm told, should have its "big story", the main point, the one thing the preacher really wants you to remember. In this case, it's this: faith precedes proof. Proof feeds faith. We believe a little and see a little, so we believe more and see more, and so it goes on. Faith must grow, and this is how it does it. Faith, then proof, then more faith, then more proof, and so on and on.
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