Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.
St. John iv. 48
Have you ever noticed how many people live their lives in search of miraculous signs and wonders? What I mean is that most men are looking for some evidence of a supernatural interruption in their lives to confirm God’s existence, or to solve some overwhelming plague, sickness, or disappointment. Most men –including no small number of Christians, await the one miracle that they think will confirm their belief or overcome their sorrows. And yet how strange it is that no sooner are the miracles performed than their recipients will fall back into the usual course of life, forgetting about it all until the next divine irruption is needed! The novelty of miracles wears off almost as quickly as a new pair of shoes –no sooner have we purchased them than, in some mysterious way, they rapidly lose their value. And it shouldn’t surprise us since miracles and new shoes tend to fall under a common category of what satisfies the senses and earthly existence. Miracle-seeking in itself would seems to be flawed from the get-go. We are searching for the wrong thing.
We find this in today’s Gospel. Jesus has just finished rebuking men for being miracle-seekers in the first place. The text reads that Jesus came again into Cana of Galilee, where he made water wine. And there was a certain nobleman whose son was sick at Capernaum… [who]went unto him, and besought him that he would come down and heal his son, who was at the point of death. (St. John iv. 46, 47) Jesus had just come out of a teaching session with pagan Samaritans, who had been much more interested in what he said than in proving to them what he could do by way of miracles or wonders. But now back in Jewish Galilee, He is confronted once again by a miracle-seeker. Jesus has returned to His own land in which He had made water wine and where the general population seems more taken up with ephemeral signs and wonders than with the Word which He longs to speak to them also. So, Jesus is approached by a nobleman who entreats the Lord to come down to heal his son. Jesus rebukes the nobleman, saying Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe. (Ibid, 48) The nobleman exclaims, Sir come down, ere my child die. (Ibid, 49) He believes that unless Jesus comes down in the flesh, his son has no hope of living. Like the Galilean Jews, his hope hangs on perpetuating earthly life. And, because he is not spiritually minded, he believes that Jesus must come down literally if his son is to be healed. He has no deeper sense of the transcendent and invisible power that can heal a man either from a distance or in a deeper, inward, and spiritual way. The end he seeks and the means to it are wholly caught up in earthly life.
In short, the man is rebuked for thinking first and foremost of his son’s physical and earthly healing. Signs and wonders are paranormal events sought out by those weak in faith for the relief of temporary problems! The nobleman cannot imagine saying speak and send the Word only and my servant shall be healed (St. Matthew viii.8), as the Centurion does in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Absent also from this man’s heart is the belief that Christ can raise the dead: Come down before my son dies (Ibid, 49). Because he is so moved and defined by the earthly good, he takes no thought for his son’s spiritual future! If he knew who Christ was and what He was bringing into the world, he would have asked Jesus to come down to heal his son spiritually, so that he might die a good death in anticipation of a better reward in the future. Nevertheless, having rebuked the man, Jesus will not leave him there without any hope.
Jesus will take the man in that state that he finds him and makes him better. He knows that in the future, wherever and whenever this story would be told, there will be ample opportunity for to find spiritual truth in it. To earthly problems, Jesus always brings spiritual remedies. Jesus takes this man’s earthly desire and transforms it to his spiritual advantage. The nobleman is not bereft of good intentions or even virtue. He believes that Jesus alone has the power to heal and he persists in obtaining it for his son. His persistence reveals the inward yearning for a truth that he does not yet possess. If his son is anything like him, they are both in need of the true spiritual life that only Jesus can give. So Jesus says to him, Go thy way, thy son liveth. (St. John iv. 50) What he means is this: Trust the Word that I give to you. Embrace it in your heart, believe it in your soul, and follow it to its end and conclusion. Do not merely hear my Word. Pursue it, find it, and see what new life it brings. Discover its power. To his credit, the nobleman does not hesitate with doubt or question Jesus further. And the man began his journey home, putting his trust in the words Jesus had spoken to him. (Ibid, 50)
What is truly miraculous is not so apparent in our casual reading of the text. Notice how the nobleman is trusting in the Word that Jesus speaks. Archbishop Trench reminds us that His confidence in Christ’s word was so great that he proceeded leisurely homewards. It was not till the next day that he approached his house, though the distance between the two cities was not so great that the journey need have occupied many hours; but ‘he that believeth shall not make haste.’ (Trench, Miracles, p. 93). The man was rebuked. Something in his soul has begun to stir in his ponderous and thoughtful Jesus’ Word begins to establish confidence in the nobleman. Something has happened to our miracle-seeker who was desperately in search for a physical and earthly sign or wonder alone. Christ’s Word has arrested him. When Jesus speaks, he hears, obeys, and trusts. The spoken Word has conquered and subdued his unbelief, his fear, and his doubt. This hearer’s belief rests in the spoken Word. The real miracle is the birth of the nobleman’s faith in the Word that is already changing his spiritual character and disposition. The nobleman forgets that he needed Jesus to come down. Jesus the Word is already with him. What has comes down to him is Christ the Word, first into his heart and then into the healing of his son. For a man to be healed truly, Christ must come down and into his soul. Then all other things will fall into place. As St. John Chrysostom says, The nobleman’s narrow and poor faith is being enlarged and deepened (Trench, Mir’s. 93) as he hastens home slowly under the protection of Christ’s Word.
So, as the nobleman returned home, his servants met him saying, thy son liveth. Then inquired he of them the hour that he began to amend. And they said, yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him. (St. John iv. 51, 52) The nobleman’s question confirms his belief that the healing of his son had been instantaneous. The son did not begin to amend, but rather the fever left him completely the day before when Jesus had said Thy son liveth. Jesus’ Word brings about two miracles. That Word will cure his son immediately from a distance. That same Word becomes dearer to the man than his son’s life. Its strength and might subdue and conquer his fearful soul. That selfsame Word will travel two distances, healing the flesh of the son in an instant, and converting the soul of the father in the steady progress of a longer journey.
St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that we should prepare our souls through prayer and come to God through our desires. For this is what the [nobleman] did. (Comm. Joh. iv) Prayer is the first movement of the self towards God. Desire is the expression of our passion that seeks out the healing that Christ alone can bring. Of course, our prayer should desire that we and others might be spiritually well in relation to God. Rather than focusing on earthly miracles, we ought to pray for the spiritual and heavenly purification of our affections. Again, with St. Thomas, as the nobleman desired the healing of his son, so we should desire to be healed from our sins. ‘Heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee.’ (Ps. xl. 5) (Ibid) Next, like the nobleman we ought always be desperately persistent, since without Christ’s Grace, we cannot help ourselves. The nobleman’s son was close to physical death; we, like his father, are near to spiritual death. St. Thomas says, When a person is tempted, he is beginning to become sick; and as the temptation grows stronger and takes the upper hand, inclining him to consent, he is near death. But when he has consented, he is at the point of death and beginning to die… The Psalmist (33:22) says: “The death of sinners is the worst,” because it begins here and continues into the future without end. (Idem) So we must pray to Jesus, Sir, come down, before I die in my sins. We must pray always, and not lose heart. (Idem)
Of course while we must run in haste to find healing from the Lord, with today’s nobleman we must embrace patience as our trust and obedience in Jesus matures. That we desperately need His healing power is one thing. That it takes time is another. Jesus says to the nobleman and us, Go away. Go away, thy son liveth. (Idem) Go away, the soul liveth. Go away, that thou might learn to obey, trust, and believe. Go away, and move slowly and silently as the assurance of my Word takes root in thy heart downward and bears fruit upward. Thy soul has just now begun to live. Thou wilt need my Word, thy sole companion, to enable thee to fight ‘against the wiles of the devil… to wrestle [not] against flesh and blood, but against principalities… powers… the rulers of darkness in this world… against wickedness in high places. (Ibid, 11,12) The Word which I speak to thee will enable thee to be ‘be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might[…and…to] put on the whole armour of God’. (Eph. vi. 10,11) What really threatens us is that evil that would bring about our spiritual death. But if we obey, trust, and believe, if we pray always with… all supplication in the Spirit, slowly but surely we shall be carried home [where because] we believe, [our] whole house will believe also. (Ibid, 53)
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