Tuesday, March 22, 2011

No Time for Manners

There’s a line in this morning’s gospel lesson (John 4:43-54) that I don’t really know how to read. After being approached by “an official whose son was ill,” Jesus says to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Then, in a most confusing yet surprisingly straightforward manner, the official replies, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” His response, delivered in what sounds to me like an almost impatient insistence, is the line that grates against my gospel sensibilities.

I looked this passage up in a few other translations of the bible to see if any other versions would fill out the man’s curt response. After glancing at six or seven, I notice that only a few add that magic word to the request, “Sir, please come down before my child dies,” but those versions (The Message, Amplified Bible, New Living Translation) are the sorts of “translations” that are willing to add (or take away) words from the original manuscripts in order to make them “sound better” in modern language. The Greek, however, has no magic word. And I think that’s the thing that really bothers me—not in a bad way, more like a grain of sand in an oyster.

The man doesn’t say please. He doesn’t beg. He doesn’t plead. He just says, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” He asks Jesus for help, and Jesus responds with a “preacher’s statement”—“Unless you see signs and wonders…”—but the man is more interested in the problem at hand—“Look, can we get to that later? My child is dying. Come now, ok?”

I think this is an example of implicit faith or of faith that is expressed in a way that doesn’t quite fit the “perfect standard.” The fact that Jesus responds to the man’s impolite (at least to a 21st century ear) demand by healing his son suggests that enough faith had been discerned in order for Jesus to grant the man’s request. It just isn’t the faith-statement I was looking for. I wanted the man to say, “Yes, Lord. I believe. I know you can do it. Please, you’re the only one who can help. Please, come heal my child.” But this isn’t the time for that. This is the time for, “Sir, come down and heal my child.”

Sometimes we find ourselves in a pickle. And sometimes that crisis is so acute that we don’t have time to jump through spiritual hoops. We don’t have time for someone to say, “When all of this is over, you’ll be able to see God’s presence through the whole situation.” We don’t have the space to process out loud with others how we are attempting to discern God’s will in the midst of the crisis. Instead, all we can say is, “Help.” There’s a faith hidden in that word. It may not be well-formed, and it may not be polite, but often “Help” is all we can get out. And, in circumstances like that, as this gospel lesson shows, God knows that the seeds of faith will sprout in time.

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