Eagle of St John - stained glass

Studying John 4 46-54

Jesus heals a little boy who is “about to die.” The story, as told in John 4:46-54, is a “sign” and also [as I read it] a profoundly symbolic depiction of the purpose and nature of Christ’s saving, incarnational work. That’s what we’re studying for Sunday, July 10. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on this short, deep text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is our second text in a series from the gospel of John, “the fourth gospel,” known for its explicit vision of Jesus as eternal Word incarnate, its careful use of resonant, recurrent symbolism [light/darkness; life/death; Truth; Knowledge; Signs], Jesus’s “I Am” statements, long speeches. Also, for its “not a synoptic gospel” distinctiveness; common knowledge holds that 90% of the text of the gospel of John is unique, where something like 65% of the text of the synoptics is common to all three.

Something else we may know about John is that the author sets up pointed contrasts between “the Jews” and other people we know, in fact, to be Jewish in the usual ethnic sense – like Jesus and the disciples. One theory about that is that the author is actively working on separating faithful followers of Jesus from “the Jews” as depicted in the gospel, for reasons that have something to do with the religious tensions of the late 1st century CE. For that reason, we have to be alert to that bias; we can’t simply take the author’s statements about “the Jews” as facts.

In the narrative context of the gospel of John, although this story is only about a fifth of the way through the book, a lot has already happened. The prologue, which we looked at last week, has established the cosmic context in which the events of the narrative are taking place. John the Baptist has offered striking testimony to the identity of Jesus, and introduced two of his own disciples, Andrew and someone else, to Jesus. Andrew has recruited Simon, aka Peter. Jesus has called some additional disciples, Philip and Nathanael. They’ve all gone to a wedding in Cana, in Galilee. Here Jesus has done the first of his “signs,” turning water for purification rites into the wine of a wedding banquet. Resemblance to eucharistic symbolism probably NOT purely coincidental.

Especially not after his conversation about baptism with Nicodemus in chapter 3. Which follows Jesus’s cleansing the Temple at Passover. Jesus has also been baptizing in Judea, prompting some questions by John’s disciples, and disclaimers from John. Then, in response to some growing fame, Jesus has headed back towards Galilee, going through Samaria, for a memorable conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well.

Then comes our healing story. Right after this brief episode, which takes place once more at Cana, Jesus goes back up to Jerusalem, for another festival. This time he will heal a paralyzed man at the pool of Bethzatha or Bethesda, and then head back to Galilee for feeding an immense crowd of people, and for some more long lectures.

The story in John is similar enough to a story about healing a centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10) that people often ask whether it’s “the same” story. It’s different enough, however, to make that a serious question. It certainly “does” different things in John’s gospel than the similar story does in Matthew’s and Luke’s. There, it presents the centurion as a model of faith, in particular for his understanding of Jesus’s authority. Here, it’s more an opportunity for Jesus to reveal his identity.

In the story told by John, the petitioner is not a centurion but a basilikos, a term of indeterminate meaning, translated by the NRSV as “royal official.” According to I. Dunderberg, the term might be able to encompass a high-ranking military officer, might refer to a figure in Herod’s court, but may be used specifically as a reference to Roman imperial authority.

The identity of the sufferer differs as well, even though in all three gospels he is referred to as a pais at some point in the story. In Matthew and Luke, he is clearly identified as a servant, one particularly dear to the centurion, and plausibly, an intimate. In John, however, he is the petitioner’s son, so that the implication in the use of pais is that he is very young. And the father-son relationship seems vital here, too. [A point by point comparison of these stories is at GayChristian 101.]

John 4:46-54 does not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, making it one of those stories we wouldn’t know was in the Bible if all we knew were the lectionary. Unless we’re talking the Narrative lectionary, in which case this story is included in Year 4, on the 5th Sunday of Epiphany. [So whether Bible Content Examinees need to be warned depends on which lectionary they’ve gotten used to. Though once again, I say: just read the book.]

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CLOSER READING: The story is bracketed with references to Galilee, and to the pointed comment that Jesus has come out of Judea and into Galilee.

This coming is almost the only thing Jesus actually does in the story, if we go by John’s verbs. Jesus comes, he says – pronouncing a comment about people’s need for “signs and wonders,” and then a word of life regarding the man’s son – and he does – this, “his second sign” “after coming out of Judea into Galilee.” That is, Jesus comes down, speaks, and this royal officer’s dying child now lives.

The word for Judea is almost identical to the word for Jews. Given John’s interest in separating Jesus from “the Jews,” it seems likely that the use of location as a frame around the story is intentional, not coincidental. In the gospel text, the story is preceded by a couple of verses noting that Jesus has come from Samaria – where a lot of people have believed in him – and mentioning Jesus’s statement that a prophet is without honor in his own country. Coming [down] into Galilee is presented as a condition for revealing this sign.

The royal officer, on the other hand, does a lot. He hears – that Jesus has come down out of Judea, and into Galilee – he went to Jesus, asked him to “come down” (to his dying son), saying his request more than once. He believes, travelling and going down to his home. Once his servants meet him with the good news, he once again asks, and knows, and believes.

Looking at the structure of the story suggests that it’s probably a mistake to get too hung up on precisely what office this “royal officer” held. If we do that, we’re probably missing the point.

The story is told in such a way that what happens in this individual story reflects and reveals what is happening in the larger story of Jesus, the Christ. Christ comes down, to a foreign country. A beloved child, a royal child, is at the point of death. [Like … humanity itself.] Christ pronounces a word of life – “your son lives” – and all is well. The people who see this, who hear of it, believe in Jesus.

What do they believe, exactly? Good question. That’s unclear.

We readers ourselves, however, might believe that this sign is a sign of Christ’s cosmic power: the power to heal, the power to give life. So that, for us, Cana in Galilee has now become a place of significant Christian revelation. We already saw that Jesus turns the water of purification into the wine of a marriage feast. Now we see that his word of life saves from imminent death, restores life. That sign leads to knowledge, and belief.

And, as Jesus himself has said, “without signs and wonders you-all will not believe.” People do, in fact, normally come to know what’s going on by reading the signs, and by learning what those signs mean. Presenting these signs, and their significance, so people can know what’s going on, is precisely John’s mission in this gospel. And this story contributes to it.

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landscape painting of Cana

Images: “Eagle of St. John the evangelist,” Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Cana of Galilee” from the journey to Palestine, Jan Ciągliński, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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