Under the Fig Tree

Feast of St. Bartholomew

By Tom Bair

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 toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get 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.”


“Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?”

Is there a more dramatic flip-flop in scripture than Nathaniel’s two contrary assessments spoken upon meeting Jesus for the first time? We go from, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” to “Rabbi, you are the son of God!” What brings about this astounding turnaround? Clearly, Nathaniel — whom many identify as Bartholomew, whose saint day we celebrate today — has recognized something that we can easily miss in this brief exchange.

The answer has to do with the scriptures that are alluded to in the conversation: Zechariah 3:8-10, Isaiah 11:1-3, and Jeremiah 23:5-6. They have to do with being without deceit, and fig trees (branches). The Jeremiah passage particularly says; “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” There is also some wordplay afoot, with the sameness in the spelling of the words Nazareth and branch in Hebrew (nzr). What has come out of Nazareth, the city, is the Branch.

Bear in mind, that Israel is expecting Messiah, a “branch of David’s tree,” “removal of deceit from the land,” “an invitation from under his … fig tree.” When the penny drops for Bartholomew he realizes that he is in the presence of one who has a commanding knowledge of Scripture and who has put together these teachings in a cohesive and illuminating way at that very moment. Jesus brings together the pieces of this Scripture puzzle in a way that makes this truth dawn on him, Nathaniel, like a thunderclap.

Recognizing this fulfillment in Jesus’ words, Nathaniel recognizes Jesus himself. He cries, “Rabbi, you are the son of  God.”

Tom Bair serves as a lay leader in the Episcopal Church. He teaches stewardship and holds an Education for Ministry (EFM) practicum from the University of the South. He is married to the Rt. Rev. Gerry Wolf.

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Today we pray for:

The Diocese of Michigan
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