By Pamela Lewis
A Reading from the Gospel of John 1:43-51
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 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.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you come to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 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.”
In the passages immediately preceding these, Jesus’ new disciples are gradually becoming acquainted with their new leader, and an intricate pattern of witnessing unfolds. The disciples use various names when speaking about or referring to Jesus: “Rabbi,” “Messiah,” or “Lamb of God” (this last name, notably, from John the Baptist). Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, plays perhaps his most important part in this gospel when he tells his brother, “We have found the Messiah.”
The enthusiastic witnessing comes to a halt when Philip tells Nathanael that the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote — Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth — has been found, to which Nathanael responds with his now famously dismissive question. This put-down may reflect small-town rivalry that existed between Cana and Nazareth, only a few miles apart; but it speaks to Nathanael’s bias toward Jesus before coming to know him fully.
Jesus knows Nathanael, however, when he was “under the fig tree.” But this is a supernatural knowledge, as Jesus was not present when Philip called Nathanael. In a subtle allusion to the Genesis story of Jacob and Esau, where Isaac told Esau that his brother Jacob had come “with deceit” to take his blessing, Jesus makes the point that Nathanael, unlike Jacob, is a truthful Israelite, moving Nathanael to call Jesus the “son of God and King of Israel” (two controversial titles). While Nathanael may not have meant for this title to denote Jesus’ divinity, he is proclaiming nonetheless a truth beyond his understanding.
The “you” Jesus addresses in the ending verses could be Nathanael, the larger group of disciples, or, through this gospel, the whole Church, who will see greater things. We know little of Nathanael’s life, but he witnessed the risen Christ, and God has completed and continues to complete the work of opening heaven on his people to reveal the Son of Man.
Pamela A. Lewis taught French for thirty years before retirement. A lifelong resident of Queens, N.Y., she attends Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, and serves on various lay ministries. She writes for The Episcopal New Yorker, Episcopal Journal, and The Living Church.
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