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 so-called Christians, await the one miracle that they think will confirm their belief or overcome their sorrows. And yet how strange it is that when these kinds of miracles do come, men are so quick to forget them, returning as they do to the usual course of affairs, until another one is needed or demanded. Miracles tend to have the lasting importance of a new shirt or pair of shoes – no sooner have they been purchased than, in some mysterious way, they lose their value. It shouldn’t be all that mysterious since these are material things which can never heal and satisfy the soul. Something then seems to be flawed with miracle-seeking in itself. We demand the wrong thing, or look in the wrong way. In any event, it seems clear that for Christians, if and when Jesus performs a miracle, He is determined to work a wonder more on the soul than the body.
We find this in today’s Gospel only after Jesus rebukes 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 the land of Samaria, where he found that the pagan Samaritans had been much more interested in what he said than in asking for anything approximating a sign or wonder. But now that He is back in Jewish Galilee, He is confronted by someone who petitions Him for a miracle. We do not know much about the nobleman who addresses Him; he might have been a Jew or a Gentile. What is significant is that Jesus has returned to the land in which he had made water wine, where the general population seems more taken up with transitory and ephemeral signs and wonders than with the Word which he spoke and taught. So 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) What he means is that unless Jesus comes down physically and literally, his son has no hope of living. Like the Galilean Jews, his hope in Jesus hinges upon physical and tangible proximity and presence. He has no deeper sense of the transcendent and invisible power that can heal a man either from a distance or even in a deeper and more significant spiritual way.
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 that those weak in faith seek out to solve temporary and temporal problems! He 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. The Centurion had said, in all humility, Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof (Idem). Yet absent in this nobleman’s story is his belief that Christ can raise the dead: Come down before my son dies (Ibid, 49). Furthermore, he has no thought about his son’s spiritual healing. If he knew who Christ was and what He was bringing into the world, he should have asked Jesus to come down to his son in order to heal him spiritually, so that he might die a good death with hope for his future spiritual destiny. But this would be asking much more than even the Apostles were capable of seeking out at this point in Jesus’ earthly ministry.
So Jesus takes 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 would be ample opportunity for those reading this account to find a lesson to be learned and applied to their respective salvation journeys. 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 a diligence and determination for a truth that he does not yet know. If his son is anything like him, they are both craving 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 trace it to its end and conclusion. Do not merely hear my Word. Follow it, find it, and see what new life it brings. Discover its power. To his credit the nobleman does not hesitate, does not 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. Notice that we are not rushed to the scene of the son’s healing. Notice that the man, who was in such a rush to procure the healing of his son, is suddenly in no rush to hurry home to find proof of it. Something has happened to our miracle-seeker who was looking for a physical and earthly sign or wonder alone. Christ’s Word has stopped him in his tracks. When Jesus speaks, he hears, obeys, and trusts. The spoken Word has conquered and subdued his unbelief, his fear, and his doubt. This hearer has been taken into that stillness where 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 does not really secure what he petitioned of Jesus. He wanted Jesus to come down. But what comes down is Christ the Word, first into his heart and then into the healing of his son. Now Christ’s Word alone is his companion, as what captures and commands his trust and hope. And so, as St. John Chrysostom says, His narrow and poor faith is being enlarged and deepened (Trench, Mir’s. 93) as he hastens home slowly to find his son.
And 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 trust had slowed his progress home, and yet he realizes that the healing of his son was instantaneous. The son did not begin to amend, but rather the fever left him completely when the day before 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 will be the father’s sole companion, whose strength and might subdue his fears, whose love and care begin to convert his soul. That selfsame Word will travel two distances, healing the flesh and blood of the son in an instant, and converting and sanctifying the soul of the father by steady progress on 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) Desire is the expression of our passion and love, and with today’s nobleman we should passionately desire the healing that Christ alone can bring. Of course, we should not desire first the healing of physical and earthly diseases. We should rather earnestly desire the spiritual healing of ourselves and others. So again, as St. Thomas says, 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, we should always be urgent, since like him we cannot help ourselves. The nobleman’s son was close to physical death, but with the nobleman, we are always sore tempted and at the point of 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. (Ibid) So we must pray to Jesus, Sir, come down, before I die in my sins. We must pray always, and not lose heart. (St. Luke xviii. 1)
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 you might learn to obey, trust, and believe. Go away, and move slowly and silently into the stillness of the night. Thy soul has just now begun to live. You will need my Word, your sole companion, to enable you 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 has rescued your son from physical death is now with you that you may ‘be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. 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) Then we shall live truly because we are strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man; as Christ dwells in [our] hearts by faith. (Eph. iii. 16) Amen.