Lenten Meditation: March 2
Updated: Mar 4
In his classic children’s book, Charlotte’s Web, E. B White writes a scene in which Charlotte, the spider, is looking to help Wilbur, the pig, avoid a pig’s fate on the farm. She weaves into her web the words “some pig” to significant impact. Rather than lunch, the passers by think of Wilbur as some pig. Only one bystander seems to make a different observation. "Seems like some spider to me."
Our scripture reading today comes from the early chapter of John, the portion also sometimes called the book of signs. Chapters 2-11 contain seven miracles, or signs, that Jesus performs in the presence of his disciples, the people, and the leaders of the synagogue. Today’s reading is the second of those signs- the healing of a royal official’s son. The event is prefaced by a reference to Cana, where the first sign occurred, as Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding. Here the stakes are somewhat higher. This is a matter of life and death.
Jesus says, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” It is not clear from the immediate context if this is a statement of fact or a statement of exasperation. Is Jesus merely commenting that signs and wonders are necessary for belief? Or is he discouraged that it takes signs and wonders to inspire belief. The pronoun is this comment is plural, suggesting that this is not an indictment of the royal official as such, but an observation about humanity in general. In any event, Jesus gives the word and and we are told that the man “believed the word that Jesus spoke”. Therefore, the man’s belief was not predicated on the sign but the word. This leads us to remember what Jesus said to Thomas after he appeared to him after the resurrection. “Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
The Royal Official returns home to learn that his child is well. He discovers that the hour his son recovered is the hour that Jesus said the word. We are told that he and his household believed in Jesus.
And this is the key point. The sign led to belief in Jesus, not belief in the sign itself. John’s Jesus is inherently suspicious of people. At one point we are told that Jesus knew “the heart of every man”. Jesus concern with signs is that they lead to placing faith in the wrong area. When we demand signs when is enough? You turned water into wine, but what have you done for us lately? Oh, healed a dying boy? Cool. What else y’a got?
The signs are not the savior. Only Jesus is the savior. And the belief that Jesus wants to inspire is not the circus side show of signs but the understanding that the word became flesh and is dwelling among us. The Royal official came to belief before he saw the sign. He believed at the word. Faith based on signs and wonders is a shallow, precarious faith-subject to the need for constant refresh. Understanding the source of the signs, the living water and the incarnate Word, is the faith that has moved beyond the doubting Thomas stage of hands and feet and into the following stage of feeding the sheep.
Charlotte wrote four times about Wilbur in her web, and the words had the desired impact. Wilbur was saved. Charlotte died. And at least one person in the crowd recognized that the words of the web said more about the creator than about the creature.