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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Faith and Fevers—John 4:46-54

Preventable cases of and deaths from malaria remain a reality in many poor countries in our world. In Jesus’ encounter with a royal official and the healing of his fever-ridden son, we can gain insight into an appropriate way to relate to such continuing crises.

John 4:46-54
46 Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. 47 When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. 48 Then Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.’ 49 The official said to him, ‘Sir, come down before my little boy dies.’ 50 Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your son will live.’ The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. 51 As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. 52 So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, ‘Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him.’ 53 The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live.’ So he himself believed, along with his whole household. 54 Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.

One child will die every sixty seconds today across the continent of Africa, from complications due to the preventable disease of malaria. Remarkably, this statistic is cause for celebration, as it represents an estimated 54% reduction of childhood malaria deaths in Africa over the last decade and a half, due to efforts on the part of the World Health Organization in partnership with many health and justice movements, both faith-based and secular. Nevertheless, fever and death from malaria remain an ever-present reality, particularly in locations, such as Africa, where economically poor communities—unable to afford preventative measures—live in the warm and damp environments in which carrier mosquitoes are most likely to breed.

Studies of the biblical region of Galilee suggest that such environments were prevalent around the area of ancient Capernaum as well. Given the proximity to the Sea of Galilee as a host environment, it is possible that malarial fever was quite common in Capernaum and may have been the cause of the illnesses of such as the young boy in John 4:46-54 and Peter’s mother-in-law in Luke 4:38.

The character of the young boy is often overlooked in commentaries on John 4:46-54, which focus instead on the persistence and faith of his father or the miracle-working wonder of Jesus. Indeed, much has also been said about the politics of power between Jesus as a Galilean peasant, giving orders with authority, to a royal official, who “begs” for his help (4:46-47). However, the exceptional behavior of these characters (the father and Jesus) can only be brought to light in relation to the ordinary and tragic circumstances of the son, who, regardless of his family’s wealth and power, continues to lay ill in his bed. As a result, whatever else is going on in the story, there is a little boy with a very bad fever from which he might die, something which is a common experience of children both then and now.

What, then, is the word of God for these children? While in Mark’s gospel account we experience Jesus reaching out to a sick little girl and beckoning her to get up, in John’s account, we hear Jesus instead speak of belief (v. 48) and of a father who believed (v. 50). While it is possible to understand the father’s response as a simple assent to what has already happened—after examining the evidence, he believed that Jesus had been trustworthy in what he said (“your son will live”)—as one of the “signs” described in John’s gospel, I believe that John intends for us to understand something more by the action of faith in this account.

Indeed, more so than the interaction between a court official and a peasant man, the politics of this text reside in this experience of faith. Jesus understands that faith, for the official (and it is implied, for all of humanity), requires more than the impartation of knowledge. Humanity requires “signs and wonders” (v 48) in order to believe. However, Jesus’ mission is not simply to heal the select few children whose parents have “faith”, but rather, to bring healing to all of humanity through the life-altering experience of God’s presence in our world.

Eugene TeSelle and Daniel Patte explain, “To speak of ‘believing in’ God or Christ is a distinct usage [of faith] that began in the Septuagint and was further developed in the NT. ‘Believing in’…is more than ‘believing that’…and more than believing/trusting a promiser; it is a personal adherence to, and movement toward, God (or Christ).”[1] In this story, the royal official takes the risk of making the first physical movement toward Jesus—a peasant—because he believes (trusts) that this teacher might be able to perform some sign or wonder that can help his son. When Jesus says that his son will live, he likewise believes (trusts) “the word that Jesus spoke to him” (v 50). At this point, the distinction between Jesus as healer and the official as client remains intact. The official’s faith is a matter of trust—believing that Jesus will deliver according to his word and function.

However, in verse 57, upon realizing that the boy is indeed healed, the primary description of the man as client changes from a royal official who happens to have a son to a father—defining the man now, not through his wealth and rank, but through his relationship to his child. In like manner, the realization of his child’s health changes the man’s relationship with Jesus as well. Now he experiences Jesus, the one who healed his son, not as a peasant wonder worker, but as God, present in his world, his life, and his household. And so we are told that the father “himself believed along with his whole household” (v 53). This is a belief that involves movement toward God in the sense of adherence to and experience of Jesus as Christ.

In our present world, where wonder workers are not so easily accessible (if one believes in them at all), the word of hope that this story gives is that Jesus as the Christ—as God present in our world, our households, and our lives—continues to move toward us and draw us toward himself. Children do not need to die of malaria. Health officials suggest that it is a disease that can be eradicated with the right medicines and money. And so, the question becomes, do we stand in relationship to Jesus as “royal officials”—business men and women, scholars, professional ministers, and the like—negotiating for our particular piece of God’s bounty? Are we waiting for God, in Jesus, to solve our problems? Or, do we stand before Jesus as fathers and mothers—Christians in relationship with one another—experiencing the power of God in the midst of our lives and our problems? Are we ready to move towards God’s vision of our world as a place in which power and privilege take second place to the care for and healing of little boys and girls lying ill in their beds?

The Rev. Amy Lindeman Allen is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a fellow in theology and practice at Vanderbilt University in the area of New Testament and early Christianity. She and her family reside in Franklin, Tennessee where they attend the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew.

[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to 40bicycles@gmail.com.]

[1] Eugene TeSelle and Daniel Patte, “Faith” in Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 406-407.

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