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The scandal of a public ministry to sinners

March 16, 2015

John 4: 43-54             Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent               16 March 2015

Today’s gospel from John is about the official who had faith in Jesus. This story also appears in slightly different versions in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and it’s interesting to compare them, because it might tell us something about the Evangelist John.

John was a theologian. He really went into the deep meaning of things – their spiritual meaning, their heavenly meaning, rather than their obvious meaning. (That’s why we hear a lot from the Gospel of St John during Lent and particularly during Easter. It was John who was the disciple of Jesus – the only one to survive martyrdom – it was St John, loved by Jesus, who actually explained the meaning of the crucifixion. The other gospel writers and Christians in general at the beginnings of the Church two thousand years ago were a bit embarrassed by the idea of their Saviour being crucified: this was a curse, according to the Old Testament. It was St John who explained it from his theology.)

St John today is giving us some more theology, hidden in a story.

You may recognise the story from the other two gospels as being about a centurion. John calls the man a ‘ court official’. The Greek word is ‘basilikos’. A ‘court official’…. well it’s a bit ambiguous. It could have been a ‘centurion’. In Luke there is some further detail given, that the centurion had actually donated some money to build a synagogue. He was a man who was called a ‘man of goodwill’ towards the Jews. So a centurion, someone in the pay of the Roman occupiers, maybe a pagan, but someone who believed in Jesus.

There’s a message coming through here. And likewise, when John calls him a ‘basilikos’, a court official, somewhat removed from the ordinary people. But this man has tremendous faith, and Jesus recognises this. In John, this man has to travel to where Jesus is, a sixteen mile walk to go and find Jesus. And he explains that his son is ill, at death’s door. Now in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew this is the point that we hear at every mass when we say ‘I am not worthy to receive you under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’ That’s a paraphrase of what the centurion said to Jesus. He is saying, ‘Just say it, and it will happen’.

Tremendous faith. Here is a theological point for you from John: you have to travel to find Jesus; you have to put some work in to find Him; you have to have faith in Him; and then you have to have faith even more, because you have to go away and you have to go on a journey to see whether it has worked.

I’m a scientist by background. This story suggests to me what is called ‘a controlled experiment’. The servants that the man meets on his way back to his home to find his son – the servants may have known he was going to see Jesus, but they don’t know what has happened or what has been said whilst he was away. The controlled part of the experiment is that he asks them what has happened. They reply that the son is better, that he has recovered. The official asks, ‘When did he recover?’ He doesn’t ask them ‘Did it happen at seven o’clock?’ That would be a ‘leading’ question. No, he asks when it had happened. They reply, ‘It happened at the seventh hour’ (that is, at about one o’clock in the afternoon). They didn’t know what Jesus had said at one o’clock! That was a sixteen mile walk ago! He immediately said, ‘It has worked! Jesus was telling me the truth! And then it says, “The father realised that this was exactly the time when Jesus had said, ‘Your son will live’.” And here is a key phrase: “And he and all his household believed.” All his household were astonished by what this person had to tell them about his faith in Jesus. That’s a story for us, to tell people about the wonders of being a Christian, believing in Jesus…. and things happen. And you may have experience of this yourself, where you pray for something, and then there’s a space of time, a space of distance. Something happens somewhere else, and you think to yourself ‘Is that coincidence? Has this prayer really worked? ‘ Well, we have faith: so often we can discern, through the Holy Spirit. It is faith.

Now there is another interpretation of why St John might call this person an official of the court’ whilst the other call him a centurion. And you need to know a little bit about Roman lifestyles.

And it is very pertinent to what is happening now in The Church and the Synod of the Family next October. The whole Church worldwide is praying for guidance from the Holy Spirit on how we should minister to and welcome into our midst those people who are living somewhat outside the rules of The Church. We shouldn’t be judgmental, but how can we reach out to them?

In Roman times it was not unusual for a wealthy man or a powerful person to adopt someone as their son. In fact this comes through very regularly: you may recall that we are often described in the Scriptures as ‘God’s children, His adopted sons and daughters’. Being an adopted son or daughter is not something that is not as good as being a real son or daughter – sometimes it is even better! If you could find a patron in Roman society who would adopt you, that was fantastic!

So this is what may lie behind today’s gospel: it may be the son of this centurion or this court official is his actual son. And it could be that there was something more to the relationship between the court official and his adopted son. Might there have been something about the relationship that would have scandalized the Jews in Jesus’ days that might also be considered shocking in our own days? Such relationships between Roman patrons and their adopted sons were very common, and it may explain why the centurion says ‘Don’t come to my house – I am not worthy.’ Maybe he had pornographic carvings, common in Roman times, on show in his house.

If this is so, did Jesus minister in answer to the prayer of someone who might have been, so to speak, ‘living in sin’? Yes, He did.

Well, this is an interpretation, which seems very contemporary, speculation of course. The story from St John may have been about the court official’s actual son, but the history of the times suggests it is just as likely he may not have been.

So today we hear a theological message from St John:

  • go and find Jesus;
  • believe in Jesus;
  • have faith in Him;
  • go away and spread the Good News;

AND….

  • we are all sinners: Jesus ministers to sinners, sometimes in a very public way.

This last point is certainly an issue The Church is struggling with today, and we need to pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance about it.

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