The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your son is living.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went his way. As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was living. So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son is living”; and he himself believed along with his whole household.
John 4: 49-53
An “official,” probably a Gentile, comes to Jesus, whom he has heard works wonders, to plead for the life of his son. Once again, Jesus’ initial response seems to be one of rejection, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Jesus here is not only speaking of the official but also of the Galileans in general. In the deeper sense, he is pointing out that faith cannot be primarily based on “signs and wonders.” The Galileans have enthusiastically welcomed Jesus, but the welcome is not rooted in reception of the word but rather on what wonders Jesus might do for them. A careful reading of today’s gospel passage, as the story of the Samaritan Woman that precedes it, reveals to us that true and deep faith can only come by a wholehearted and honest reception of and response to the word.
In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Francis J. Maloney, S.D.B. points out that the suppliant of Jesus in this story is identified differently as the narrative progresses. He is first “the official,” then “the man,” and finally “the father.” The initial encounter with Jesus is made by “the official.” It is in his social role that he asks this “wonder” of Jesus. He has heard of him and hopes that this miracle worker may be the agent of his son’s healing. It is this somewhat anonymous presence that draws Jesus’ rebuke – not only to him but to all those who are welcoming him in hopes of seeing and receiving the fruits of his “signs and wonders.” We as well can keep our encounter with the Lord at the level of our social, and so largely anonymous, identity. We would like to receive whatever there is to be given, but we don’t want to give too much of ourselves away in the process. It is this superficial level of relationship and presence that Jesus rejects. If my “belief” depends on “signs and wonders,” that are given to me even as I remain distant and hidden from Jesus, it will, like seed that falls by the side of the road or on rock, readily wither and die.
In response to Jesus’ rebuke, however, the official invests much more of himself in this personal encounter. “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” This is no longer the “official” but a loving and fearful father. He now stands before Jesus in his poverty and fear, and thus as an openness to the life that Jesus can offer. He is no longer his title or office it is now “the man” who will come to believe “the word that Jesus spoke to him.” The gospel says that he then “went his way.” In the best sense, he has been “put in his place,” and that place is the truth of who he is as common and ordinary. It is in this common and ordinary core identity that the word of Jesus can take root and show itself to others. St Teresa of Avila defines humility as “walking in the truth of who we are.” It is the “man” who goes “his way” after Jesus’ promise to him rather than the “official” who first encounters him. Much like the Samaritan Woman, this “man” now returns home in the humble and ordinary way of life that is common to all.
Finally, on his way home the man is met by his servants who tell him that his child got well at the very hour that Jesus told him that his son was living. When his servants tell him this news, it is as “the father [that] he knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son is living. . .” It is now, as “father” that “he himself believed, along with his whole household.” It is in community, not in social hierarchy, that belief manifests and flourishes. It is only as mother, father, brother, sister, that is in the loving and caring relationship of the common life, that one lives in the Word.
The encounter with Jesus can only happen at its depth when we come to the Word (in scripture, sacrament, and personal encounter) in all our poverty and lack and there discover what is “common to all”. We are always and already a living community, because the presence and gift of God is common to all of us. Yet, we must come to possess what is common by the way of dispossession, by letting go of our titles and entitlement and opening our poor and needy hearts to the loving word of Jesus.
The best, like water,
Benefit all and do not compete.
They dwell in lowly spots that everyone else scorns.
Putting others before themselves,
They find themselves in the foremost place
And come very near to the Tao.
In their dwelling, they love the earth;
In their heart, they love what is deep;
In personal relationships, they love kindness;
In their words, they love truth.
In the world, they love peace.
In personal affairs, they love what is right.
In action, they love choosing the right time.
It is because they do not compete with others
That they are beyond the reproach of the world.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, #8,
trans. Stephen H. Ruppenthal