The healing of the ruler’s son: sermon on the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

“There was a certain ruler, whose son was ill”

In many of His conversations in the Gospels, our Lord speaks of faith. Think, for example, of His conversations with the Canaanite woman, or with St Martha, or with the man whose son was possessed, and who used to throw himself “often into the fire, and often into the water”. But we have perhaps no better description of the process of coming to perfect faith than in this gospel of the royal official, or ruler, from Caphernaum, whose son is at the point of death, and who comes to speak to Christ in the village of Cana.

Who is this man who goes to ask for healing for his son? St John calls him by a word which simply means “royal”, or “belonging to a king”. Perhaps he was an important official directly answerable to Herod, who had the title of king in Galilee. The Vulgate translates St John’s word with the Latin word regulus, which could be translated literally as “a little king” (or even “kinglet”, to use a rare English word). I think that, as well as being a real person, this little king also stands for man himself: man who is a king in a certain sense, at least in regard to lower creation, yet who is a very little and weak king, exposed to many ills of mind and body. The man’s son is sick, and so he goes in search of the Lord. Perhaps, by his son, we could understand man’s life. A man’s life is in a way like his son; it is that which he “begets” by his deeds, and which is most precious to him. It is often when a man’s life is sick, and on the point of death — that is, when he realises that his life is not going well and is likely to go worse — that he becomes ready to look for help from God, maybe for the first time.

At this point, then, the royal official does not appear to have faith. He has only a capacity for faith, or, at most, a desire for it; he is willing therefore to see if Christ is able to do something for him. St John Chrysostom, commenting on this passage of the gospel, says: 

“Fathers often are so carried away by their affection, as to consult not only those in whom they have confidence, but even those in whom they do not have confidence, not wishing to leave any means untried, which might save their children.” 

But whether or not this is the state of the official, it is the natural state of man. We have by nature a certain capacity for faith, but none of us is born with it. We are all born infidels.

Now, how does our Lord reply to the man’s request for help? He says to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” This could seem like a harsh reply to make to a man whose son is on the point of death, but it is not so. Our Lord is never unkind, even though people feel pain when His words, as here, throw light upon their wounded souls. I think that this royal official needed to be made more humble before he was ready to receive a miracle: it is difficult to be in a king’s service without becoming a little proud, but God owes it to Himself not to work miracles in answer to proud prayers. Jesus, by mentioning the man’s slowness in believing, humbles him, so that the man will now be able to pray well enough to gain a miracle.

But our Lord’s words have a broader meaning. He was not speaking to the royal official only. His words, in fact, are in the second person plural (something which is easy to miss in the English version): “Unless you (plural) see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” He is speaking, that is, of men in general. Although God offers to mankind the graces by which they might believe His word simply on His own authority, there is a great number of people who refuse to believe unless they witness a miracle. This is foolish: yet God in His mercy goes some way, we might say, toward meeting this request, in the miracles worked by the saints throughout history. Not everyone gets to see a miracle; but anyone who wants can find reliable testimonies from those who have witnessed them.

But this man, the royal official, now shows himself better than the average of mankind. The Lord grants his prayer, and even before he has seen the result, “he believes the word that Jesus said to him”. It is at this point, it seems to me, that the man receives supernatural, justifying faith. He believes the word of Christ on its own account, without having seen a miracle, as Abraham long before had believed the promise of God that in his seed all the nations should be blessed. This is the faith which all Christians have, if they are worthy of the name; although we know of miracles, both those in the Gospels and those worked by the saints, it is not primarily on their account that we believe the creed. We believe it on the authority of God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.

The official, then, now has the virtue of faith, and returns from Cana to Caphernaum. Is there anything still lacking to him? Yes, because it is possible to have this virtue and yet not to have what is sometimes called “the spirit of faith”. It is possible for a person to preserve the true faith in his heart but not to let it extend its influence over his whole life; such a person continues to have plans and ambitions which are not inspired by the faith that he possesses. In extreme cases, a person can even fall into mortal sin while retaining supernatural faith.

When the servants meet their master and tell him that his son was healed at the very moment of his conversation with our Lord — and at the warmest time of the day, when, I presume, one would be least likely to throw off a fever — then, says St John, “The father knew that that was the hour when Jesus said to him, thy son liveth; and he himself believed, and his whole household.” I think that what happens here is that the man now gains the spirit of faith. Probably, also, he and his household were baptised, since we read in the previous chapter of St John’s Gospel that the apostles were already conferring baptism. But in any case, his heart is flooded with a new light: he recognises Christ not only as an inspired teacher but as the Son of God. And if our Lord worked this miracle without leaving Cana, where He had first manifested His glory at the wedding, I think this is to show that the one who receives the spirit of faith begins to behold Christ’s glory and to recognise Him as the Bridegroom of the soul.

There are many people in the world who do not have faith, nor even perhaps the desire for it. They are unable to use their days to achieve any lasting benefit for themselves; it is as if their time is in the possession of someone else. But we can help to “redeem the time”, as St Paul says, buying it back for them by our prayers to God our Father on their behalf. Let us pray that they may receive, first the desire for faith, then the virtue of faith, and finally the spirit of faith, both them and their whole households.