The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Nazareth wasn’t a good place to put on your Curriculum Vitae as your place of origin. In fact if there was Facebook back then, you wouldn’t acknowledge that you were from there on any social media. Nazareth was a dump.
It didn’t feature in any Old Testament prophecies. No great personage had come from there. It wasn’t the seat of any power and no great families hailed from Nazareth. It was a simple backwater town. No great schools, colleges, universities.
There was nothing. Nazareth was nowhere.
Jesus came from Nazareth.
Despite the setbacks of being from there, the Nazarene Jesus had insight and intuition that the best family, geography and education cannot give. He knew people, their nature, their motivation and their desires. That is what drew him to Nathanael as he saw him standing under the fig tree.
Standing under your own fig tree is a symbol of comfort and blessing in the language of the Old Testament. Again and again the prophets used the image to evoke feelings of longing for peace and consolation. To be under your fig tree was to be home and arrived. Nathanael was standing in that space.
Strangely, there is a restlessness in the human spirit that is not satisfied with the shade of our own particular circumstance. A longing and a yearning for more. Was it this that Jesus sensed in Nathanael? Did he see in the shaded man, something restless wanting to grow?
Nathanael wasn’t impressed with Jesus. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Prejudice and arrogance make us so unteachable. I came across a lovely defition of a heretic the other day. It defined a heretic as someone who is unteachable. Nathanael was bordering on heresy.
It was Philip who cut through Nathanael’s cynicism about Nazareans, “Come and see.” The most simple and effective of evangelistic invitations. It is the beginning of growth and liberation. “Come and see“. It seems that it is not enough to stand afar off in our comfort zones and formulate opinions from a distance. We have to “Come and see“. That is what changes our lives.
As I write this, I am facing charges of heresy that have been laid with the Presiding Bishop of my denomination. The people who have laid the charge have never met me, nor are they prepared to meet me. I phoned and asked them. They are not members of any of the congregations I serve, they have never attended a service I have conducted. They have listened to an archived sermon of mine on the Internet and now they want me silenced, “to protect the people you [I] am leading to hell” by teaching exclusively from the Gospels as I do.
All they, by contrast, want to do is stand under their fig tree, their comfort zone, and voice cynical opinions. My invitation to them is the invitation of Philip, “Come and see“. Thus far they have refused to budge from the shadows.
Jesus finds Nathanael right where he is in his comfortable, fig tree shadow, the place of his prejudiced opinions, and then Jesus leads him on to greater adventures.
He tells Nathanael he will see heaven opened and angels ascending and descending. Jesus is referring to Jacob who experienced a dream where he saw what Jesus is describing to Nathanael. Jacob saw the angels ascending and descending as Jesus describes. On awaking from his dream Jacob named the place Bethel and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’
By all accounts it would seem Nathanael never did see what Jacob saw. Instead he saw the Nazarean Jesus, whom he followed; despised, rejected, crucified and utterly destroyed. It wasn’t much of a dream! It was a nightmare!
The next and only time we hear of Nathanael, after his meeting with Jesus under the fig tree, is on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in one of those mysterious post resurrection events.
I wonder if Nathanael remembered, as he stood there in the presence of the crucified and risen one, the words he heard those three adventurous years ago, “You will see greater things than these”
Nathanael sure had.
Perhaps if we will get out from under the shade of our own prejudiced opinions, we may see greater things too?