Today’s reading is John 4:43-54 (ESV):
43 After the two days he departed for Galilee. 44 (For Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own hometown.) 45 So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, having seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the feast. For they too had gone to the feast.
Jesus Heals an Official’s Son
46 So he came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And at Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill. 47 When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. 48 So Jesus said to him, “Unless you[a] see signs and wonders you will not believe.” 49 The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” 50 Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way. 51 As he was going down, his servants[b] met him and told him that his son was recovering. 52 So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour[c] the fever left him.” 53 The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” And he himself believed, and all his household. 54 This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.
No one gets to see Jesus today the way people saw Jesus during his ministry. We may encounter Jesus through the sacraments or through the church which is the body of Christ or through his words in the scriptures. But I don’t think any of these can compare to actually seeing a real live human being walking around and performing miracles.
It seems unfair, in fact, that some people got to really see Jesus turn water into wine and raise Lazarus from the dead, while the vast majority don’t have this opportunity. Only a select group of people in one region in one brief period of time got to see Jesus in that way. Yet, the reactions of the people who actually witnessed Jesus are not categorically different from the reactions of those of us today who don’t actually witness Jesus. It is not just the quality of the evidence that determines whether one believes it, but the character of the one trying to believe.
In today’s scripture, Jesus returns to Cana, where he has already performed the miracle of turning water into wine. An official asks Jesus to come and heal his dying son, and Jesus responds, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” This is a less than tactful way to speak to a man whose son is dying. Perhaps Jesus is testing the man, similar to how Jesus tests the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew and Mark. I would argue that the impolite remark should be taken similarly to Jesus’s reproach in the preceding story of the Samaritan woman at the well.
In that passage, Jesus is talking with a Samaritan woman at a well and tells her to bring her husband there. When she claims to have no husband, Jesus replies “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” Once again, Jesus has been quite rude. But there is a point to this rudeness. Jesus is revealing both his own divine power (through his prophetic statement) and the woman’s sin. In turn, the woman recognizes Jesus as a prophet and believes in him.
On the other hand, the official, when reproached for needing a sign, just continues asking for a sign (though perhaps a father with a dying son should be cut some slack). And it is only at the end of the story, when the official recognizes his son was healed at the moment Jesus spoke that the official himself comes to believe in Jesus.
The official’s lack of faith becomes clearer when we consider another parallel story found in the gospels of Matthew (8:5-13) and Luke (7:1-10): Jesus healing the centurion’s servant. Once again, Jesus is approached by a man asking him to heal someone he loves, in this case a servant. But while the official in John asks Jesus to come and heal, the centurion asks for Jesus to stay away and heal. The centurion does not think of Jesus as some magic medicine or genie which, when used properly, can heal. Rather, the centurion recognizes Jesus as having authority, just as he has authority. Just as the centurion can order a man to march, and he marches, so, too, he believes if Jesus says his servant is healed, his servant will be healed. Sure enough Jesus says that the servant is healed, and he is healed.
Now we have seen three different sorts of faith: the faith of the centurion who believes before he has even seen Jesus perform any miracles or do anything, the faith of the Samaritan woman who believes at Jesus’ prophetic word, the faith of the official who wants Jesus to heal on his terms and only comes to fully believe after he understands Jesus has healed his son.
And there are many other sorts of faith going on in the background of these stories: the people the Samaritan woman tells about Jesus (who see no miracles but believe), the household of the official who see miracles without seeing Jesus and believe, and the multitude of unnamed people in the gospels who witness Jesus and his miracles but do not believe.
My point in identifying all these different responses to Jesus and to miracles is that there is not a simple correlation between supernatural power manifested to a person and how much faith he puts in Jesus. It is not as though anyone can be compelled, by a large enough show of divine force, to believe in Jesus. Rather, to be effective, miracles require not just the power of God but also the willingness of the person seeing it to take it as such; a miracle must be looked for.
So there’s no need to complain that the vast majority of us missed out on seeing real live Jesus doing miracles (for a classic example of such griping, see the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”). It is not God’s fault for not being miraculous enough; instead, it is our responsibility to be the sorts of people who can see miracles and recognize Jesus as the Christ.
Gregory Scalise ’18 is a Junior in Pforzheimer House studying Philosophy and the Classics.