Anyone who has ever read a book that includes dialogue can attest that finding a unique voice for each character who speaks can be both challenging as well as highly enjoyable. Depending on the picture the author has painted of the character, we “hear” them in ways influenced by these descriptions. For instance, if an author has described an older, churlish, British aristocrat we read his dialogue with a certain accent and tone in our minds. Characters from the deep American South have a unique cadence and voice, as do Middle Easterners, Asians and Central American Hispanics. We read their words based on the way that we’ve heard them speak.
I fear that some people tend to read some of the words of Jesus with a dreadful tone.
In John’s gospel there is a story about an official from the city of Capernaum who tracked Jesus down in the area of Galilee called Cana. The official, whom John identifies as having royal ties, has a very sick son at his house and he is desperately in search of relief for the boy. He has heard about Jesus’ miracles it seems, and so he finds the Teacher and pleads with Him to come and heal his son. This is a scene that most parents can relate to. Most of us have spent a night or two, awake with a sick child, trying to comfort them, praying over them, pleading with God to help them to be able to rest. The tone of the royal official is almost certainly both humble and desperate. He has tracked down this mysterious Rabbi and he needs His help. The text in John says that “he begged” Jesus “to come and heal his son who was close to death” (Jn 4.47)
Then comes Jesus’ reply, and with it comes our dilemma:
“Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
Now, quick quiz: how did you hear Jesus’ tone here? Exasperated, maybe? Frustrated with both this man and the rest of Israel who just had to have a sign from God, who couldn’t seem to manage even a little bit of faith without a miracle popping up every 5 minutes? If you did, then you aren’t alone.
Many of us, I fear, have been taught to read Jesus’ words in these situations as if He is an angry recluse who can’t stand it when people bother Him with petty and insignificant issues like dying children or demon possession. But I struggle to believe that Jesus is actually upset here. The text doesn’t indicate that He huffed and grumbled about their need for signs. It simply says that He made a statement about the way that people would be able to believe.
What if Jesus was saying this with great compassion? What if He was looking at the official and saying, “I’m about to show you something amazing, and because of this you will have a great opportunity to believe in Me and in what God is doing in your land and in the world.” What if Jesus is simply stating the fact that belief is only possible when signs and wonders are present? Is that so crazy an idea?
Without stretching this into gallons and gallons of long-winded theological bullet points, I think the main point that needs to emerge here is that God isn’t angry with people in need. To imagine that He is frustrated with people who have need of His tangible work in their lives, in their families or in the world is foolish. It’s just as foolish as imagining a father or mother who despise their kids for asking for help in situations that they can’t figure out or escape. What good parent would hear their scared child banging on a locked door, trapped alone in a room, and ignore them or get frustrated with them for asking to be let out? Are children supposed to be satisfied that their parents have the ability to help them without expecting them to actually, physically, tangibly help them? Isn’t that what it would mean if Jesus were frustrated in this text?
Of course we need signs and wonders. Of course we need to see and touch and feel. Of course we need some kind of evidence. Of course…what did you expect? While the result of faith might be the evidence of things that have yet to be seen, faith itself is based on what we actually know to be true of God, what He’s actually done, what He is actually capable of. And while Jesus did indeed tell His disciples that those who have not seen and yet still believe are blessed (Jn 20.29), isn’t it possible that He was talking about them not seeing the Source of the power that floods their lives? Surely He wasn’t saying, “Blessed are those who believe in Me without ever seeing, hearing about or experiencing anything I’ve ever done or will ever do.” That’s ridiculous; and probably not true as well.
Jesus doesn’t look at us in our neediness and get irritated. God isn’t rolling His eyes and huffing as He collapses onto His gigantic, cosmic throne, head in His enormous hands, mumbling about how He’s sick and tired of hearing about how much He’s needed. The Bible says that Jesus is beside His Father and they are continually having a conversation about us, looking at who we are and what we’ve done and then looking at what Jesus did and perpetually offering a judgment of love and mercy, help and affection.
At the end of this story we see that what Jesus said is exactly what happened (which, if you’re keeping score through the Gospels, shouldn’t be much of a surprise). John wraps up the story of the official and his sick son this way:
John 4.51, 53
While [the royal official] was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living…the father realized that [the moment his son was healed] was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed.
Jesus said, compassionately and graciously I believe, that when a sign and wonder is seen, belief would be the result. And that is exactly what happened.
I’m not naive enough to assume that no one will push back on this idea. The questions can certainly be raised about how long the official’s belief lasted, or how authentic can belief really be if it is based on signs and wonders, and on and on it could go. Sure, those are questions that probably ought to be asked, but they are not questions that should be allowed to change the text, define the tone of Jesus or re-write the story of this man’s family. The facts go like this: they didn’t believe, their son was healed, they did believe. Does that sound bad? Does that sound like a loss? Does that sound like something Jesus was unhappy with? If we are finding complaints in this process then maybe we should re-think the way that we believe God sounds when He’s speaking to this man, to this world and to us. Jesus’ tone might just be more friendly than we thought all along.