I hold an affinity for Nathanael, one of the first followers of Jesus. In fact, Nathanael is one of the original twelve called “Apostles” who journeyed with Jesus for three years. What I especially liked about Nate is his wit, as seen in his initial encounter with Jesus:
“The following day Jesus decided to go into Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me!” Philip was a man from Bethsaida, the town that Andrew and Peter came from. Now Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have discovered the man whom Moses wrote about in the Law and about whom the Prophets wrote too. He is Jesus, the son of Joseph and comes from Nazareth.”
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” retorted Nathanael. “You come and see,” replied Philip.
Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him and remarked, “Now here is a true man of Israel; there is no deceit in him!”
“How can you know me?” returned Nathanael. “When you were underneath that fig-tree,” replied Jesus, “before Philip called you, I saw you.”
At which Nathanael exclaimed, “Master, you are the Son of God, you are the king of Israel!”
“Do you believe in me,” replied Jesus, “because I said I had seen you underneath that fig-tree? You are going to see something greater than that! Believe me,” he added, “I tell you all that you will see Heaven wide open and God’s angels ascending and descending around the Son of Man!” (translated by J.B. Phillips)
Okay, now this is very funny! You may not have noticed this before because of the idea of Jesus having a sense of humor is foreign to most of us.
Nathanael was from Cana. Jesus was from Nazareth. The communities were about six miles apart. A brief conversation ensues. Almost immediately after Jesus mentioned seeing him under a fig tree, Nate has this incredible conversion. Scholars propose his dramatic realization of who Jesus was came on the heels of profound skepticism. I think Nathanael was already intrigued with Jesus and just determining whether this was someone to follow or not.
Humor, not cold skepticism. Like two people meeting who tease each other about the schools they attended…
While only six miles apart, Cana and Nazareth were probably rivals on everything from sports to girls to fights to high school academic bowls. Okay, they didn’t really have high schools back then. Nate’s quip might have been more steeped in a long pattern of neighborly competition with a nearby city as opposed to an impulsive, theological rejection of the possibility of a Messiah coming from Galilee.
His comment strikes me as a playful jab to which Jesus responded with a sparkle in his eye: “Behold an Israelite who says what he means” which implies this was not an unusual stereotype for people from Cana. Tit-for-tat. Talking smack. Sarcasm from the teacher to the new student. I think we are witnessing a moment of male bonding at its best. Jesus chides, “You believe in me because I said I saw you sitting under a tree?” (implied: “Seriously Dude?”) Certainly a smile or chuckle accompanied this retort.
Why would the thought of Jesus teasing with someone cause us concern? Is it so much easier for us to consider Jesus as the Son of God but not fully human? There are several other places in scripture that carry a similar playful tone. Fully God. Fully Human.
But even more significant than his wit, Jesus identifies Nathanael as a person without guile. Nate says what he thinks, without pretentiousness. What you see is exactly who he is. There is no hidden agenda so you never have to guess what is behind Nathanael’s comments.
I too am a follower of Jesus who was fully human yet the “visible expression of the invisible God.” Fully himself, both God and human… and a fan of those who are exactly as they appear, without guile.
Nathanael appeals to me because he exhibits priorities of transparency and authenticity. I have a deeply-held belief that honesty with oneself (and others) is the first requirement of emotional, relational, and even spiritual healing. Healing cannot begin until injury ceases. Keeping up a mask of pretentiousness, or anger, is a defense mechanism that prevents recovery. Healing begins by opening up and cleaning out the wounds`.
I make no pretensions of being perfect, not even close. But I do strive to be a believer in whom there is little guile. At a time when people are so filled with anger, as part of our fractured society, I will likely lose friends if I say or write something with which they disagree. I have a responsibility to my employer, and church, and family, to avoid public conflict, yet in my heart of hearts, I want to speak up with simplicity and clarity.
As I wander through this blog and share this wondering and wandering with you, will you give me the grace of friendship across our differences? I hope my thoughts hold some value and hope for you. At the very least, it will be therapeutic for me.
Maybe something good CAN come out of Nazareth. It certainly did for me. The wanderer named Jesus made all the difference for me. I hope he does for you.