Text Study for John 4:46-52 (Part 2)

The purpose of the Johannine gospel is laid out with clarity in John 20:30-31. “Therefore, indeed, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which have not been written in this book; but these have been written in order that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in order that by believing you might have life in his name” (my translation).

A quick reading of the text from John 4:46-52 should make it clear that this healing story is intimately connected to understanding the purpose of the Johannine account. Jesus mentions signs and wonders and their connection (or lack thereof) to believing. There is the drama of a child on the point of death and Jesus’ declaration that the child lives. When the Royal hears about the timing of the child’s healing, then he and his whole household begin to believe, although they do not actively follow Jesus.

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Whenever we have the chance to preach on a Johannine text, it’s a good idea to review Craig Koester’s article, mentioned in the “References and Resources.” I will review portions of that article and make some observations as well.

What is the connection, at least in the Johannine account, between Jesus’ signs and the response of believing? Koester reviews the various scholarly opinions dealing with this question. It may be that Jesus doesn’t have much use for a faith that depends on being impressed by visible signs. Or it may be that the signs are part of the Johannine account for the precise purpose of calling forth believing.

Others propose that the signs may produce a sort of introductory believing, but disciples have a deeper and fuller trust. Still others note that the signs are only effective in producing believing among those who have already begun to trust in Jesus to some degree and thus have a confirming rather than a producing function when it comes to believing (page 327-328).

Koester reminds us that one of the strategies in the Johannine account is to put stories and characters next to one another. This juxtaposition allows us as readers to compare and contrast the variety of responses to Jesus. In our case, the parallel stories, Koester suggests, are the story of the Royal’s son and the story of the Man on the Mat in John 5:1-16. He argues that we should read these stories together for two reasons: the common theme of a healing sign and the features of the stories that make them “mirror opposites” (page 336).

I’ll summarize Koester’s schematic of the texts. Our story happens in Cana of Galilee, a location where believing happens readily. The second story is in Jerusalem, where believing is a struggle and resistance is more likely.

In our story the man approaches Jesus. Jesus resists the request with talk about signs and wonders. The man persists in his request. Jesus promises the healing, and the man departs believing. On the way he meets his slaves who bring word of the healing. The man checks the timing of the sign and believes. In addition, the man’s whole household believes.

In the second story, Jesus approaches the man. The man resists the overture with talk about a wonder. Jesus makes a second offer, and the man doesn’t respond. Jesus heals the man. The man leaves, still oblivious to Jesus’ identity. Afterwards, the man encounters “Jews” who complain about violation of Sabbath law. Jesus again approaches the man. The man turns Jesus in to the authorities, who then persecute Jesus.

“The sharp contrast between these episodes,” Koester writes, “again raises the question as to why some people respond to Jesus with faith, while others show unfaith or hostility” (page 337). The Royal came with an expectation of healing. The Man on the Mat had no such expectation or even desire. The second story “demonstrates that simply seeing or experiencing a miracle is no guarantee of faith,” Koester argues. “Moreover, the story indicates that the man’s unbelief was not due to some failure on Jesus’ part, since it was Jesus who consistently initiated contact with him” (page 338).

The story of the Royal paints a different picture. The man hears about Jesus and is willing to “come and see” (yes, we can think about the call of the disciples in John 1). He trusted in Jesus’ promise that his child was living. On the basis of hearing the word and trusting the promise, Koester suggests, the man was then able to discern the meaning of the signs. “The sign in turn confirmed his faith,” Koester concludes, “as the first Cana miracle confirmed the disciples’ faith” (page 338).

What does this all mean in the Johannine account? Koester notes that in this account genuine faith comes through hearing. “In the case of the disciples, the royal official, the blind man, and Martha,” he writes, “hearing evoked an initial response of faith or trusting obedience which was confirmed and deepened by a sign.” That deepened faith empowered them to understand the sign and experience it as evidence confirming Jesus’ claims (page 347).

Seeing, according to Koester, does not have the same impact in the Johannine account. That is the case with the Man on the Mat in John 5. He simply missed the point altogether. Some reacted to what they saw with confusion, like Nicodemus. Others responded with hostility and even violence. Nonetheless, Koester argues, “Our study does not suggest that the evangelist disparaged seeing signs, resurrection appearances, or actions like the temple cleansing” (page 348).

Believing based on seeing, however, does not move the person into deeper faith in the Johannine account. “The evangelist makes clear that Jesus’ actions were rightly perceived only by those who already responded with faith or trusting obedience to what they had heard from or about Jesus,” Koester concludes. The progression to deeper faith in the fourth Gospel moves from hearing the Word to seeing confirmatory signs to deeper understanding of the signs and a development of genuine and mature faith no longer dependent on the signs (page 348).

In these mirror opposites, then, do we have a contrast between believing that grows and believing that is stillborn? Karoline Lewis helps us look closely at the grammar for some clues. This gets into the Greek-speaking weeds, but I think it’s helpful. Things that would be obvious to a Greek-speaking listener or reader or often simply and literally “lost in translation.”

“Therefore, Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you would see signs and wonders, you might not ever believe’” (John 4:48, my translation). The verb for believe is an aorist subjunctive, “putting how the official will respond into a condition of uncertainty” (Lewis, page 70). The negative is a “strong future denial,” which is why I render it as “you might not ever believe.” Jesus’ comment to the Royal is not a condemnation but it is certainly a test of his trust. Lewis puts it well. Jesus says, “I wonder what it will take for you believe. Will it be the signs and wonders, like everybody else?” (page 70).

The frantic father has no interest in the existential dilemma. “Sir, will you please just come down before my child dies?” (John 4:59b, my translation). “He believes what Jesus says,” Lewis writes, “before he believes because of what Jesus does” (page 71). This is the nature of a deepening faith in the Johannine account, a believing that takes Jesus at his word before any confirmation is offered. “The truth of Jesus’ words, Jesus as the truth, is dependable even without Jesus present, which is central to the meaning of the healing of the royal official’s son,” Lewis notes.

What is at stake here for the Johannine author and community? Lewis puts it well. “The healing is not premised on Jesus’ being there but on his word,” she suggests, “and it is therefore an embodied event that demonstrates a larger theological issue for the Fourth Gospel, the possibility of believing in Jesus even after his return to the Father” (page 72). Lewis refers us to the overall purpose of the Gospel in John 20 at this point.

Is the point, then, to just believe no matter what? No, Lewis says. That can’t be it. “To say that what Jesus says is true does not mean he speaks verifiable facts,” she writes. Instead, “Jesus is truth because he is the one on whom we can be utterly dependent,” Lewis continues. “Jesus’ words are true because there is a correlation between what he says and what he does and who he is” (page 72).

It’s not that we are called to trust Jesus without any “evidence.” Instead, our desperate search for help can lead us to meet Jesus. In this meeting we can experience healing and salvation. At that point, we can take our healing and leave, like the Man on the Mat. Or we can be open to a deeper relationship and understanding that doesn’t depend on signs and wonders but is rather rooted in undying trust.

The child lives. But there is still a funeral somewhere in the future. We get a bit of foreshadowing of the Raising of Lazarus in John 11 here. We also get a reminder of what the life of believing is like for any of us. We believers can point to times where we were almost dead, only to be brought back to life by the Lord Jesus.

Yet, even as we tell those stories, we know that unless Jesus returns soon there is still a funeral somewhere in the future. Is believing in Jesus something more than a variety of terror management strategy as we contemplate our own mortality? I don’t know how that preaches, but it is a question worth contemplating this week.


References and Resources

Koester, Craig R., “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John” (1989). Faculty Publications. 22. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/22.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Augsburg-Fortress, 1998.

Meier, John P. “The Historical Jesus and the Historical Herodians.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 119, no. 4, Society of Biblical Literature, 2000, pp. 740–46, https://doi.org/10.2307/3268526.

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Text Study for John 4:46-52 (Part 1)

6 Epiphany C 2022 (Narrative Lectionary)

I’m preaching in a local parish this Sunday, and they use the Narrative Lectionary. So, I’m going to do my work on the gospel text appointed in that lectionary this week. Therefore, we return to the Gospel of John for this week, at least. To be honest, I’m struggling with the anti-Judaism potential in the Lukan readings, and I need some more time to work this out. So, I’m glad for the “out” I’ve been given to think about a different set of texts for a while.

To what lengths might you go to keep your child from dying? One answer to this question comes in the form of a TEDx talk by Anneliese Clark. I don’t recommend this talk with any political or medical motives. I think, however, that is a contemporary illustration of the distance parents will go to save our children. I imagine you can see the connection to the story in John 4:46-54. You might see a variety of connections, and you can share those in the comments if you wish.

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I would travel to the ends of earth and the heights of heaven searching for a cure for my sick child. I would rather have one of my arms ripped off than to have one of my children suffer. I know very few parents who feel less passion for their children’s health. So, here in the Johannine account, we have an eminently relatable and painfully dramatic healing story.

To what lengths might you go to keep your child from dying? Traveling far is a significant theme in the Gospel of John. “Geography is theology in John,” writes Jaime Clark-Soles in her workingpreacher.org commentary. Jesus and his disciples go from Galilee to Judea and back again numerous times in the Johannine account. It is a gospel about covering great distances.

That’s true geographically. But it is truer sociologically and theologically. Let’s think about the social distance between Jesus and the “ruler” who meets him in Cana. Soles notes that scholars debate the ethnic identity of this upper-class, elite person. She notes that the official might be a Roman and therefore Gentile official.

Or the ruler may be a Hellenistic Jew serving in the administration of Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet ruler of Galilee. In addition, Herod certainly had Gentiles in his administration, so there are no guarantees about the ethnic identity of the ruler in any event. Soles argues that the ruler is likely a Roman official. She connects the Johannine report to the accounts of the healing of the centurion’s son in Matthew 8 and Luke 7. She also suggests that “given the emphasis in this cycle of expanding inclusivity, it makes sense to construe him as Gentile.”

That may well be the case, but it seems to me that responding to a Herodian official would create just as much of a challenge for Jesus. Herod was half-Jewish and half-Edomite. His family is a collection of thugs and murderers. They are despised by their subjects and mocked by their Roman overlords. They are (or soon will be) responsible for the execution of John the Forerunner (he’s not really the Baptizer in the Johannine account). So, an oppressor for sure – whether Jew or Gentile.

Malina and Rohrbaugh note that the title for the man is vague at best. It is an adjective that should be translated as “royal,” as in “he was a ‘royal’.” They argue that he was likely a member of the Herodian family, due to the reference to his whole household and to his position as a slaveholder. “In any case,” they continue, “whether a royal retainer or a royal aristocrat, the man whose son is near death would be very high on the social scale in a town like Capernaum. He is certainly not the type,” they conclude, “who would normally seek the patronage of a villager from Nazareth” (page 107).

How far would I go to get my son saved? I certainly wouldn’t let any ethnic markers get in the way if I thought someone could help.

The Royal isn’t the only one who crosses these ethnic boundaries. The first boundary Jesus crosses in this story is ethnic. He has moved from working among the Galilean Jews to the Jews in Judea. Then he spends two days building a faith community among the Samaritans in Sychar. Now he is open to bringing healing (which can also be construed as “saving”) to a (Herodian) Gentile. When we read the Johannine account, we must always remember that it is the cosmos that God loves by sending the Son (John 3:16, John 4:42).

“On the heels of Jesus’ presence in Samaria is now his mission to the gentiles,” Karoline Lewis writes. “The world that God loves just keeps getting bigger” (page 70).

The second, and more imposing, boundary Jesus crosses in this story is the boundary of class or honor status. Let’s consider this first from the perspective of the ruler. He moves from near the top of the social scale to near the bottom of that scale. When he asks Jesus for a favor, he makes Jesus his “patron” and is now beholden to him. It is a sign of the Royal’s desperation that he comes in person and doesn’t send an enslaved person or a freed person to speak on his behalf.

The Royal depends on reports of Jesus’ signs in Jerusalem as he decides to seek out this “savior.” Malina and Rohrbaugh note that this connection will have serious reputational repercussions. They argue that the word for “beg” in the text is a term one uses to describe seeking a favor from a patron. They note that the Royal addresses Jesus with a respectful title. And, they suggest, “Since word of the aristocrat’s begging would spread quickly in a small town, [the Royal] risks serious public dishonor by doing so unless his behavior was warranted by Jesus’ reputation” (page 107).

So, how far would you go to save your son? Reputation be damned – I want someone who will get the job done! This means that the Royal goes from powerful to powerless, from dominance to desperation. I may have too much faith in the Johannine author’s subtlety, but I wonder if this is reflected in another geographic feature of the text. Capernaum is over 200 feet below sea level. Cana is nearly seven hundred feet above sea level. Even the topography reveals the real status of the players involved.

Malina and Rohrbaugh devote an extended reading scenario in their commentary to the subject of patronage. They define patronage as “a system of generalized reciprocity between social unequals in which a lower-status person in need (called a client) is granted favors by a higher-status, well-situated person (called a patron).”

A favor is something you need that you can’t get on your own. “By entering a patron-client arrangement, the client relates to his patron as to a superior and more powerful kinsman,” they continue, “while the patron sees to his clients as dependents” (page 117).

So, how far would you go to save your son? First of all, it appears that the Royal willingly traveled the twenty-four miles from Capernaum to Cana. Even if he could access wheeled and horse-drawn transportation (which was likely), this was still most of a two-day’s journey uphill and through some rough terrain.

Second of all, the Royal surrenders his power, position, and privilege in order to get his son saved. A powerful man expects to dictate terms, to control information, to give orders, and to get results. But here, he needs to take a chance on gossip, trust a promise, and go on a journey, the outcome of which is uncertain. He is on unfamiliar terrain in every dimension of his experience. But often, there’s a slim difference between desperation and faith.

Then, let’s consider this from Jesus’ perspective. He is often critical of the elites who come to him with questions and critiques. He is suspicious of those who claim privileged and power. Not long before he has had a challenging conversation with Nicodemus, one that seems to indicate Jesus’ attitude, at least in the Johannine account, toward those who are at “the top” and should be in the know. That conversation ends without a conclusion. We don’t yet know how the Jerusalem establishment might respond to Jesus, but things aren’t looking good.

Perhaps this accounts for the relatively cool reception Jesus gives the man when he arrives. We should be careful about how we hear the text, however. When Jesus talks about the relationship between signs and believing, all the “you’s” in the sentence are plural (verse 48). He’s not addressing the frantic father specifically. This is a word to the observing crowd who are hoping for more theological fireworks.

Desperate human need is a great leveler of hierarchies. When one’s child is on the verge of death, a parent doesn’t spend a lot of time checking the social register to research the pedigree of the potential healer. Dire necessity closes the sociological and ethnic gaps with lightning speed – at least for the ruler. When a loved one is dying, human distinctions matter very little. The man is like you and me – he’ll do anything to get his son saved.

It’s Epiphany. Perhaps the question here is this: how far will God go (come) to save God’s children? It may be that the Royal is as much a model of God as he is a client of Jesus.

References and Resources

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Augsburg-Fortress, 1998.

Meier, John P. “The Historical Jesus and the Historical Herodians.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 119, no. 4, Society of Biblical Literature, 2000, pp. 740–46, https://doi.org/10.2307/3268526.

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