Christ Heals the Son of the Royal Official
Fr. Scott A. Haynes
Healing the royal official’s son by Joseph-Marie Vien, 1752.
A Meditation on St. John 4:46-53
At that time, there was a certain royal official whose son was lying sick at Capharnaum.
When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea into Galilee, he went to Him and besought
Him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Jesus therefore said to him,
Unless you see signs and wonders, you do not believe. The royal official said to Him, Sir, come
down before my child dies. Jesus said to him, Go your way, your son lives. The man believed
the word that Jesus spoke to him, and departed. But even as he was now going down, his
servants met him and brought word saying that his son lived. He asked of them therefore the
hour in which he had got better. And they told him, Yesterday, at the seventh hour, the fever
left him. The father knew then that it was at that very hour in which Jesus had said to him,
Your son lives. And he himself believed, and his whole household.
While in Cana, an official from Capernaum comes to Jesus and begs him to heal his son who is close to death. The official is not named but we know him to be a royal official of the court of King Herod Antipas. To understand who Herod Antipas was, one must know something about the line of Herod. The family of Herod started with King Herod the Great.
The Roman Emperor appointed Herod to be governor over the Jews in Palestine and later allowed him the title of King. Most people who know the Christmas story have at least heard of King Herod. Herod was alive when Jesus was born. It was Herod who met with the Wise Men. It was Herod who ordered the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem.
This Herod had five wives, most of whom he murdered. He had several children, many of which he murdered. Things got so bad that after a while Caesar Augustus quipped,
“It is safer to be Herod’s pig than to be his son.”
Considering Jewish dietary laws, one can appreciate the darkly humorous irony of Caesar’s statement.
One of Herod’s sons managed to live just long enough to father a daughter named Herodias. Herodias was the granddaughter of Herod the Great. You would think she would have resented the wickedness of her grandfather in killing her father. But, instead, she followed after the pattern of her grandfather. When she married her wealthy uncle Philip, they had a daughter named Salome, a name which means “peace.” If ever a child was misnamed it was Salome. She brought anything but peace. In time it was Salome who demanded the head of St. John the Baptist.
Later, Philip’s brother, Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, visited his brother and was smitten by his beautiful but evil wife Herodias. So, Antipas seduced her away from his brother and they went back to Galilee. For this to be possible, Antipas had to get rid of his previous wife who was the daughter of the King of the Nabateans. This so enraged the King of the Nabateans that the next time he met up with Antipas he gave him a dose of his own medicine, beating him severely. Even through this simple analysis, one can see that Herod’s complicated line is filled with intrigue and wickedness. Despite their dark behavior, Antipas and Herodias tried to establish themselves in Galilee with some degree of respectability.
It was an official from the court of Antipas and Herodias who came to Jesus with an urgent request:
“Heal my son.”
Had the man been a Jew, he might have encountered Jesus in Jerusalem or seen some of Christ’s miracles there. Being from Capernaum, this royal servant would have at least been familiar with the miracle Christ worked at the wedding feast in Cana, changing water into wine. From this, the seed of faith was planted in his soul.
This royal official was aware that Jesus had returned to Galilee and was in Cana once more. Making a journey of twenty miles from Capernaum to Cana, he implores Jesus to come to come back with him and heal his son. The Gospel account gives one the impression that Jesus almost seems to brush him aside. Christ says,
“Unless you people see signs and wonders, you do not believe.”
Jesus addressed not only the individual official but the entire crowd of onlookers, making this a teaching moment for all. In this, Christ exposes the limits of their “faith”—a faith based merely on a desire for miracles.
The miraculous signs and wonders Christ worked provided a starting point, to awaken the people to see that He is the Son of God. In their dialogue, Jesus was testing the sincerity of the royal official. If the official had spurned Christ and turned away in disgust and derision, or if he had been too proud to receive the rebuke, then Jesus would have known that he was not approaching in earnest, that his faith was not real. In essence, Christ asked the man,
“Is your faith real?”
In the face of this question, the official is not daunted by the apparent rebuke.
“The royal official said to Him, ‘Sir, come down before my child dies.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go your way, your son lives.’”
The Gospel further reveals a second essential ingredient regarding faith. This is demonstrated by the fact that the boy, whose desperate need was met by Our Lord, is never at any point physically with Jesus. At this point the miracle bears similarity to our own situation. Like the boy, we have never physically met Jesus. Nonetheless, this does not limit Christ’s ability to meet our needs. Rather, it creates the context for us to engage our faith. To have faith is to act on the belief that what Jesus says is true. It must have been hard for that official to turn away and go home with only Jesus’ assurance that his little boy would live. Yet that is precisely what he did. Do you believe that what Jesus says is true?
The official was making his way home and while he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was alive and well. I am sure he was overjoyed by the news, but there was something else he wanted to know. When? The Gospel records:
“But even as he was now going down, his servants met him and brought word saying that his son lived. He asked of them therefore the hour in which he had got better. And they told him, Yesterday, at the seventh hour, the fever left him. The father knew then that it was at that very hour in which Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son lives.’”
The faith he had placed in Jesus without seeing a miraculous sign was now confirmed by hearing of the outcome of one. This leads to the third essential ingredient of faith: surrender. There is a significant progression in the official’s response to Jesus, from humbly but earnestly seeking help from Jesus (verses 47, 49), to taking Jesus at his word (verse 50), to wholeheartedly embracing faith in Jesus in a public way (verse 53b).
Our journey of faith needs to follow a similar path. We need to bring our needs humbly and sincerely to Jesus, recognizing that it is not God’s role to do what we want, but for us to do what God wants. Secondly, we need to take Jesus at his word – not with a vague notion that what Jesus says should be true but that it must be true. Thirdly, we need to surrender to Jesus daily. We must have a deep willingness to work for His glory and for the spread of His Kingdom. It is encouraging that Jesus was willing to accompany the official as his faith grew, even though it meant that for a time Jesus appeared to be refusing the man’s heartfelt plea.
In this Gospel, there was something greater at stake here than the healing of a little boy. There was also the healing of the father – the healing of his spirit – which led to the blessing of his entire family. The official was not one who got out of Christ what he wanted and then went away forgetful. He and his entire household came to believe in Jesus. This was possible because the royal servant put total confidence in the authority of Jesus.
In his book, A Grief Observed, the author C.S. Lewis once wrote:
“I have to believe that Jesus was (and is) God. And it seems plain as a matter of history that He taught His followers that the new life was communicated in this way. In other words, I believe it on His authority. Ninety-nine percent of the things you believe are believed on authority… The ordinary person believes in the solar system, atoms, and the circulation of the blood on authority – because the scientists say so. Every historical statement is believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Spanish Armada. But we believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them.”
The royal official who comes to Jesus because of what witnesses have spoken of him, approaches Christ not altogether knowing what to believe, but simply knowing that He has a need that no one else can fill. As the story progresses, we behold the growing faith of this man as He encounters Jesus. Ultimately, he comes to put total trust in Jesus as Lord.
The Jews expected a Messiah who would deliver them from Roman oppression, but God His Son to deliver them from the oppression of sin and death. We do not know what became of this royal official and his family after they became Christians, but it must have been intensely difficult to be known to follow working in Herod’s court. There would have been insult and mockery if not severe persecution. But this official had experienced what Jesus could do and there was nothing left for it but to surrender. Today’s Gospel challenges us to surrender all to Jesus. As we let go, we let God accomplish His work. As we sacrifice our selfish will to follow God’s will, we invite Christ to work through us, with us, and in us, to bring forth deeper faith, profound hope, and abiding charity. Amen.