20 January 2010

Saint John’s Gospel (8): John 4: 43-54

Capernaum ... with the synagogue on the left and the domes of the Greek Orthodox church in the background

Patrick Comerford

43 Μετὰ δὲ τὰς δύο ἡμέρας ἐξῆλθεν ἐκεῖθεν καὶ ἀπῆλθεν εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν. 44 αὐτὸς γὰρ ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐμαρτύρησεν ὅτι προφήτης ἐν τῇ ἰδίᾳ πατρίδι τιμὴν οὐκ ἔχει. 45 ὅτε οὖν ἦλθεν εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν, ἐδέξαντο αὐτὸν οἱ Γαλιλαῖοι, πάντα ἑωρακότες ἃ ἐποίησεν ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις ἐν τῇ ἑορτῇ· καὶ αὐτοὶ γὰρ ἦλθον εἰς τὴν ἑορτήν.

46 Ἦλθεν οὖν πάλιν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὴν Κανᾶ τῆς Γαλιλαίας, ὅπου ἐποίησε τὸ ὕδωρ οἶνον. καὶ ἦν τις βασιλικὸς, οὗ ὁ υἱὸς ἠσθένει ἐν Καπερναούμ· 47 οὗτος ἀκούσας ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἥκει ἐκ τῆς Ἰουδαίας εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν, ἀπῆλθε πρὸς αὐτὸν καὶ ἠρώτα αὐτὸν ἵνα καταβῇ καὶ ἰάσηται αὐτοῦ τὸν υἱόν· ἤμελλε γὰρ ἀποθνῄσκειν. 48 εἶπεν οὖν ὁ Ἰησοῦς πρὸς αὐτόν· Ἐὰν μὴ σημεῖα καὶ τέρατα ἴδητε, οὐ μὴ πιστεύσητε. 49 λέγει πρὸς αὐτὸν ὁ βασιλικός· Κύριε, κατάβηθι πρὶν ἀποθανεῖν τὸ παιδίον μου. 50 λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Πορεύου· ὁ υἱός σου ζῇ. καὶ ἐπίστευσεν ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῷ λόγῳ ὃν εἶπεν αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, καὶ ἐπορεύετο. 51 ἤδη δὲ αὐτοῦ καταβαίνοντος οἱ δοῦλοι αὐτοῦ ἀπήντησαν αὐτῷ καὶ ἀπήγγειλαν λέγοντες ὅτι ὁ παῖς σου ζῇ. 52 ἐπύθετο οὖν παρ' αὐτῶν τὴν ὥραν ἐν ᾗ κομψότερον ἔσχε· καὶ εἶπον αὐτῷ ὅτι χθὲς ὥραν ἑβδόμην ἀφῆκεν αὐτὸν ὁ πυρετός. 53 ἔγνω οὖν ὁ πατὴρ ὅτι ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ὥρᾳ ἐν ᾗ εἶπεν αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς ὅτι ὁ υἱός σου ζῇ· καὶ ἐπίστευσεν αὐτὸς καὶ ἡ οἰκία αὐτοῦ ὅλη. 54 Τοῦτο πάλιν δεύτερον σημεῖον ἐποίησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐλθὼν ἐκ τῆς Ἰουδαίας εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν.

43 When the two days were over, he went from that place to Galilee 44 (for Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honour in the prophet’s own country). 45 When he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, since they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the festival; for they too had gone to the festival.

46 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. 47 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. 48 Then Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.’ 49 The official said to him, ‘Sir, come down before my little boy dies.’ 50 Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your son will live.’ The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. 51 As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. 52 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.’ 53 The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live.’ So he himself believed, along with his whole household. 54 Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.


The Greek Orthodox Church in Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, with the Golan Heights in the distance

This morning we have two separate incidents that run together in John: the return of Jesus to Galilee, and the second of the seven signs in the Fourth Gospel.

Part 1: verses 43-45, return to Galilee

This is a bridge passage, a link between two stories of encounters Jesus has with key non-Jewish figures – the Samaritan woman and the villagers of Sychar (John 4: 1-42), the royal official from Capernaum (verses 43-54). So with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and the royal official, we have three key personalities, one Jewish, one Samaritan, and one Gentile.

Verse 43:

In between the Samaritans and the Gentiles, Jesus continues on his journey from Jerusalem to Galilee, on the third day he arrives in Cana. So already, we are being prepared to hear about a story of life and death and new life.

Verses 44-45:

We can find a link here between this story and next Sunday’s Gospel reading from Saint Luke’s Gospel (Luke 4: 14-21), when Jesus tells us that a prophet is without honour in his own country, and yet he appears at first to be received with honour in Galilee, as he was first received in the synagogues in Galilee when he returned from Jerusalem, according to Saint Luke (see Luke 4: 15).

Verse 44:

These verses cause some problems. In verse 44, Jesus says “a prophet has no honour in his own country.” But if Jesus believed that he would have no honour in “his own country,” why does John tell us that the Galileans “welcomed” him? This same proverb is found in Matthew 13: 57, Mark 6: 4, and Luke 4: 24.

When Jesus comes to Nazareth and teaches in the synagogue, some local people who had probably been in Jerusalem when he was there, performing signs (see John 2: 23; 4: 45). If they had not been in Jerusalem, they would have heard about some of his miracles there. When Jesus arrives in his “hometown,” there must have been high expectations. Yet, some people start to ask questions. He may be popular person and have a growing following. But Nazareth is his hometown, they all know all about him. And so, Jesus performs few miracles there.

Verse 45:

He has returned to Galilee, to his “own country,” where a prophet is without honour. But when Jesus arrives in Galilee, the people there “welcome him.” From what we have seen in Matthew’s account of his arrival at Nazareth, we see virtually the same phenomena. Jesus returns to his “hometown” and receives an initial warm welcome there.

The people are aware of the miracles he performed in Jerusalem and now hope to see many more in their own town. But as they reflect on his origins and family background, they find they are not so sure. Has he come to bless the Gentiles as well as the Jews? What seems to start off well ends up in a very disappointing way, both for Christ and for those from his “hometown.”

A short-lived, superficial acceptance of Christ is not the same as an informed, long-term commitment to him. Although the Galileans initially welcomed Christ, this does not mean that they truly accept him as Messiah. His visit home is disappointing because although he is initially welcomed, he is not truly honoured.

And yet this interlude is also telling us that Christ came as the Saviour of Jews (these three verses), of Samaritans (the previous story), and of Gentiles (the next story) … in other words, of all people, and that he is the Saviour of the whole world.

Part 2: Verses 46-54,

On first reading it, this story about the healing of the royal official’s son seems similar to the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant or slave (Matthew 8: 5-13; Luke 7: 2-10). But despite the similarities, there are many differences. Let me summarise them:

● The centurion was a Gentile; the royal official was probably a Gentile, although we are not told so – there is a possibility that he was Jewish.

● The centurion’s servant suffered from a paralysis; the royal official’s son was ill with a fever.

● The centurion lives in Capernaum; the royal official lives in Cana.

● The centurion’s faith is praised by Christ; the royal official and others are rebuked for a deficient faith.

● The centurion urges Jesus not to come, but only to speak the word; the royal official urges Jesus to come.

● The Centurion asks Jewish elders to plead his case; the royal official pleads personally with Jesus.

And so the story of Christ healing the royal official’s son is unique to the Fourth Gospel, as is most of the material in Saint John’s Gospel of John.

Verse 46:

Jesus returns to Cana of Galilee, where he turned water into wine (John 2: 1-11), last Sunday’s Gospel reading. The NRSV translates βασιλικός (basilikós) as royal official, although other versions call him a “nobleman.” He was probably a servant of Herod, the Tetrarch of Galilee, who is referred to as king in the New Testament (see Matthew 14: 9; Mark 6: 14, 22).

Verse 47:

Capernaum was a border town, and it was there that this royal official heard that Jesus is back in Cana once again. The official’s son is at the point of death and this father is desperate. Jesus is now his last and only hope to save his son. He makes the 30 km journey to Cana to find of Jesus, and there he begs him to return with him to Capernaum immediately and to heal his dying son,

Verse 48:

At a first reading, Christ’s response to the royal official appears disturbing:

“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.’” The NRSV in a footnote, and other translations, indicate that the “you” in verse 48 is plural, and not singular. Therefore, Jesus is speaking to a larger audience and not to, or not just to the royal official. At first reading, as with the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman in Saint Mark’s Gospel (Mark 7: 24-30), who asks for healing for her daughter, Jesus appears to be caught with his compassion down. But back in Galilee, where a prophet is without honour among his own people, Jesus is not going to rush into performing a miracle to entertain the crowd and to draw attention to himself.

His words of rebuke may be in the hope of dispersing the crowd. He chides them for being interested only in his miracles and not taking to heart what the signs point to.

Verse 49:

Certainly the official does not interpret these words as a personal rebuke. For he asks – perhaps even tells – Jesus to come back with him.

Verse 50:

Perhaps the crowds have left by now. Jesus’ next words are to tell the man: “Go; your son will live.” If the crowd has stayed around these words would have sounded as though they were only intended to get rid of this persistent father, not as words of assurance. He probably headed back home on his own to Capernaum. The crowd disperses, the sign-seekers go away disappointed.

Verses 51-52:

From this story, it appears that the royal official believes – but only to a degree, and not fully. The royal official did not get what we wanted. Jesus did not go back to Capernaum with him. He probably headed home wondering what was happening to his son.

Verse 53:

The man’s belief only comes to full fruition in verse 53, later that evening or perhaps a day later, when he hears that his son was healed at the time Jesus spoke to him.

The father now knows he has witnessed a miracle, and he believes, along with his entire household. But this new belief in verse 53 is more informed than the belief in verse 50. It is now a belief in Jesus as the Messiah, as the Saviour of the world.

The second sign (verse 54):

This is the second sign in Saint John’s Gospel.

The first sign was at Cana (last Sunday’s Gospel reading), when Jesus turned the water into wine on the third day, but when most of the guests at the wedding never knew what had happened. It was a “sign” seen only by a few, but it results in the faith of the disciples (see John 2: 1-12).

So too with the second sign, also on the third day. The royal official’s son is healed not in front of the gaping crowd, not even in front of the official’s household. Christ performs this miracle in such a way that only the royal official knows it is a miracle. But when he explained this miracle to his servants, they too become members of the household of faith.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group of BTh and MTh students on 20 January 2010.

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