In the next “sign” in John’s Gospel, we’re dealing again, (in my view), with a further story designed to persuade us that Jesus is the divine, messianic saviour, who has ‘come down’ from God above, with a message and mission to his people. How much is factual and historical is for you to decide.
Not far from Cana, where the 1st “sign” was located, (that of Jesus changing water into wine), is Capernaum. It’s the home of “a royal official”, (presumably in the service of King Herod Antipas), “whose son was sick”. Hearing that Jesus is in the vicinity, he seeks him out, and “begged him to come and heal his son”. It’s worth noting, I think, that Jesus is initially hesitant. The man has to plead with him to “come before my child dies”, and it seems that he gets the response that should have been given to the wedding guests – “Unless you people see signs and wonders you will never believe”. Just to round off what some might think a less than exemplary encounter, Jesus doesn’t agree to go with the man to see his son, but dismisses him saying, “Go home. Your son will live”.
Someone reading this story for the 1st time, might be disappointed with this rather low key end to the story, but the author is preparing us for the trump card hidden up his sleeve. On his way home, some servants meet the official with the good news that his son is getting well again. John has him ask his servants “the time when his condition started to improve”. This enables John to reveal to us that, conveniently, both the official and his servants had checked their watches (or sundials, or water clocks) at the vital moment, and “one o’clock in the afternoon” was the exact moment at which both the healing was seen to have begun, and at which Jesus had said, “Your son will live”. Wow! The impact of this persuasive coincidence was immediate – the royal official “himself believed along with his entire household”. An all-round, eventually happy and satisfying conclusion.
It seems to me to me that the way in which this story is crafted, doesn’t actually show Jesus in the best possible light. He has to be pleaded with. He turns down the man’s request to go with him and see his son. ‘Go home, it’ll be ok’, is as much as the man gets. It’s as if what matters most to John is the setting up of a situation that will extract as much drama as possible, in the simultaneous happening of two distant events.
Well, of course, it’s a story, told for the greatest possible effect, but let’s take it at face value, and think about this. Most, if not all, of us are at risk of having a view of Jesus shaped by 2,000 years of theology and christology, creeds and catechisms, doctrines and dogmas. Jesus, the charismatic, provincial preacher, has become God in the flesh, and therefore must have been a ‘perfect’ human being, ‘without sin’ (whatever that means). That may be a ‘logical’ development, but I find it unconvincing, This picture of a ‘human’ being who is faultless in everything he thinks, says and does, isn’t the picture I see emerging ‘between the lines’ in these Gospel stories.
To take just a few examples, Jesus says we’re not to judge, but in Matthew 23, launches a tirade at the Pharisees, who are “hypocrites, blind fools, whitewashed tombs, snakes, offspring of vipers” who should be “condemned to hell”. In John 2, an enraged Jesus “scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables”, “made a whip of cords and drove them out of the Temple courts”. He could give vent to rage, dish out insults, and condemn people to hell.
This is a Jesus I find much more credible. I can identify with someone who had normal human feelings and failings but who, none the less, in his day-to-day lifestyle, and in the best of his teaching, has given us more than enough to keep thinking about, learning from, and putting into practice as far as we are able. I get more from the picture of Jesus protesting against the Temple money-spinning greed and corruption, than the picture of him sitting in heaven at the right-hand side of the Majesty on high – but you, happily, are free to think differently.