Much of the "travelogue" passages in the Bible are easy to gloss over, since Westerners living in the twenty-first century have little awareness of or attachment to the cities of ancient Israel. John 4:43-54 has a bit of that travelogue feel to it, but it may help to note that many people have compared the area in which Jesus was traveling to the size of New Jersey. That's not a value statement one way or the other. The two areas are just very similar in size. You don't have to know the locations of the geography and how they relate to one another to get the gist of the story. People are not traveling in particularly awkward or unusual paths here.
This passage follows immediately after the story of Jesus' encounter with the woman in Samaria. On the surface, it probably seems that the main point of this passage is about Jesus' power to heal. This may have been a part of the intention of the author, but healing stories like this are abundant and are told about a wide variety of people in the ancient world. Rather than picking apart the healing story itself, it may be beneficial to dig down to different level and notice another focus of the passage: belief.
First we see that people in a prophet's hometown are not likely to believe what he has to say. Then, we see that people who have witnessed something first hand have a persistent belief. The Jesus character levels an accusation that unless some demonstration of power is offered, then people will refuse to believe. Yet, the royal official believes Jesus' words, seemingly because they are spoken with authority. He then receives information that seems to confirm that his belief was well-founded. Let's look briefly at each of these problems of belief.
"A prophet has no honor in the prophet's own country." Once people think they know you, it's challenging to get them to see beyond what they think they know. Likewise, once you think you know a person, it's tough to notice when that person develops in new ways. There is some truth to the observation that people don't change, which makes it all the more challenging to recognize when a person does change. The reality is that many people continue along a predictable path in their lives, journeying toward a "default future." People who become more intentional in their lives, however, have the capacity to journey in new directions.
Sometimes, we form snapshots of people -- we get an impression of them based on a particular moment in time, and we draw conclusions about their entire being from that impression. In our minds, those people always look like their snapshot. Often, we might wind up being pretty much on target when we do this, because many people keep following the same unconscious patterns throughout their life. A prophet is someone who has something important to say, though. And prophets learn their wisdom somewhere. They are changed people once they learn something they didn't know before, and they have the potential to express what they've learned in a meaningful way. People who are only willing to hold an old snapshot in front of them aren't able to hear something meaningful, though. They are stuck on an old impression of the person.
We may have some prophets in our lives. It's important for us to listen. There may be people who have learned something and are living their lives differently as a result. If we mentally trap them in an older version of themselves, they don't suffer from that -- we do. They have learned what they have learned, and they're going to use that knowledge in their lives. By dismissing them, we miss out on sharing in their wisdom. It pays to be awake to the people around us -- to pay attention to people and notice when they seem to be outgrowing our old impressions of them.
We may be prophets for others. We may have learned some things in our lives that we want to share with the people close to us. Some of them aren't going to listen. They have an impression of us that was formed a long time ago, and they aren't able to see past that. We could spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get through to people who can't see us clearly, or we can spend our "prophetic" energies on people who are more willing to listen intentionally. The choice the authors of John commend is to speak to those who will listen.
"Until you see signs and wonders you will not believe." This statement has a double edge to it. On the one hand, it seems to suggest that if you don't see something with your own eyes, you will doubt that it happened. On the other hand, it seems to accuse people of wanting to be entertained and amazed -- "If I don't entertain and amaze you, you won't place any value on the spiritual truths I have to offer." Both of these concerns are problematic in their own ways.
Taking the latter issue first, it still seems to be a problem that we are more willing to accept "truth" from someone who can entertain and inspire us than we are willing to accept a potentially less appealing "truth" from someone who doesn't take the time to amaze and captivate us. From mega-churches to TED talks, we are more prone to believe things said by people who in some way entertain us and keep our attention. Entertaining delivery does not make something more true, however. We connect a person's ability to be entertaining with their ability to have meaningful insights, and there is simply no connection there.
If we want to know truth, we have to assess truth statements based on our experience of those statements and our thoughtful evaluation of those statements, not based on how entertained we were when we first heard them. We are swayed by shock jocks and talking heads because we are in some way being impressed and entertained. They could say anything that generally fits with our worldview, and we believe it because we are being entertained. This is irresponsible on our part. If we never seek objective sources to verify what we are told by an entertaining person, we are most likely believing a number of things that are not true. It is better to evaluate our beliefs carefully, so that we can have a more accurate assessment of reality.
Seeing is believing? The other issue of not believing something if we don't see it with our own eyes is problematic for different reasons. To begin with, what we see with our eyes is not always what we interpret with our minds. The royal official in the healing story experienced a series of events that had no clear correlation -- there was no direct link between Jesus saying something and the little boy's turn toward better health. The official's mind, however, interpreted a cause-and-effect relationship for which there is no evidence. This is, apparently, the interpretation of events that the authors of John intend.
It is popular among some circles of believers to discount empiricism -- the idea that knowledge comes from sensory experience. Some people create a straw man definition of empiricism in order to demonstrate a perceived flaw. "We can't see oxygen in a room, and yet we know that there is oxygen in the room. See, empiricism is bogus." Just in case it needs stating, empiricism includes sensory experience that is provided by all senses, and it includes information that we can collect through machinery. If we can measure the oxygen levels in a room in any way (including by using a piece of scientific equipment or by breathing comfortably enough to assert that the air is breathable), we can have empirical knowledge that there is oxygen in the room, If we can't measure it in any way, we can't actually say that we "know" it.
The problem, of course, is that we rely most heavily on our natural senses, and we draw conclusions based on incomplete information. We see something or hear something and our brains fill in the gaps between what we experience and what reality must be. We see lights in the sky and sometimes our brain leaps to UFO, for instance. Just because we have seen lights in the sky doesn't mean we have seen a UFO, but we often don't make that distinction. We think we know things that we do not know because we are not clear about what we have actually experienced. Some people believe that David Copperfield actually made the Statue of Liberty disappear in 1983. They aren't clear about what they actually experienced, and so they have a belief that isn't based on reality.
With some things, we have to trust authorities. For example, scientists conduct experiments to arrive at some knowledge, hopefully under controlled conditions that eliminate their personal biases as much as possible. We can't repeat a lot of those experiments, so we are left to trust the scientists within limits. Even scientists have biases, and new knowledge emerges all the time. One facet of empiricism is that we are never done making observations about reality, which means that we are never done understanding new things and revising our beliefs about the world.
Clearly, it's a good thing that we develop a healthy skepticism about things that we don't experience and can't measure, and it's also a good thing that we develop thoughtfulness about the conclusions we draw from what we experience. The authors of John do not necessarily agree with this statement, and that's fine. Even though some of our information must necessarily come from other people's observations, our lives can be more effectively lived if we do our own thinking rather than allowing other people to think for us.
So, we recognize that our beliefs are fraught with challenges. We dismiss people and the things we might learn from them because we think we know them well enough based on where they came from. Some people will do the same to us. We sometimes mistake being entertained for being enlightened, and the two experiences are not synonymous. We have to trust authorities on some matters. Yet actual knowledge only comes to us through experience, and even our experience can be misinterpreted by our minds. We have to be thoughtful, then, and examine our beliefs to make sure that we aren't living by a set of ideas that don't line up with reality.
A Little Experiment: Listen. Take some time and listen to someone you've known for awhile. Reevaluate your "snapshot" of that person and see if it might need some revision. Is there any growth or change in that individual that you haven't noticed until now? What can you learn and apply in your own life?
Another Little Experiment: Cause and Effect. Pay attention the next time you interpret a cause and effect relationship. Is it possible that you are seeing a connection where none exists? Or is it possible that there are other causes for the results that you notice? Sometimes our assessment of cause-and-effect is spot on, and sometimes we unintentionally let our brains fill in gaps in our knowledge with assumptions.
A Big Experiment: Knowing. Sharpen your sense of what you know. Examine your beliefs and ask yourself "How do I know this?" Maybe some of your beliefs have been handed to you by sources you trust. Is there a better word than "knowledge" you could use for these beliefs? Maybe some of your beliefs are based on personal experiences that you have interpreted a specific way. Are there other ways your experience could be interpreted? Are there other things that could be true about your experience? If you become sharper about asking and honestly answering "How do I know?" it could change your life.