43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip 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.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And 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 we really think that we are ok?
Do we feel lovable?
Do we feel worthy?
Do we feel acceptable?
In this Gospel passage the most obvious attribute that Nathanael has is his scathing prejudice against the town of Nazareth and all that comes from it.
But Jesus saw Nathanael differently.
He says ‘Here is truly an Israelite with no deceit’.
Or guile, sometimes the word ‘deceit’ is translated as ‘guile’ – sly or cunning intelligence.
Now the listeners would know this was a compliment – their forefathers didn’t have a great foundation in being free from guile – Jacob stole the birth right from his brother Esau, and his grandfather Abraham passed his wife Sarah off as his sister. In fact the whole human race is tarnished with guile as Adam tried to blame Eve in the Garden of Eden and Eve tried to blame the snake.
I guess the fact that Nathanael was willing to speak his mind about those who come from Nazareth has the flip side of not being cunning or deceitful.
Jesus saw the positive side. He saw the worth in the man. He accepted him immediately. He enjoyed the encounter.
Taken aback Nathanael asks how Jesus knows him and he replies that he saw Nathanael under the fig tree. Now John’s Gospel is alive with signs and symbols, so the fig tree probably means something… there are a few possibilities:
Being under the fig tree is a phrase used by the Old Testament prophets to be an image of peace of the day of the Lord, in Micah 4:3-4 it says:
They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.
So in that case perhaps there is a suggestion that Nathanael is secure and at peace in the Kingdom of God.
The fig tree also represented Israel,why this should be, I don’t know. But the unique thing about the fig tree, unlike all other trees, is that the fruit appears before the leaves. So there is a suggestion that all the religious observance, all the worship and incense and ceremony and the like, is like the leaves – it isn’t the important thing – it is only the aftermath of the bearing of fruit.
In this sense, Nathanael is a true Israelite – he doesn’t have all the tidy morality or the embellished piety that we might expect of a believer – he just comes up with the fruit – “you are the Son of God” he declares to Jesus.
Did we expect Jesus to chide Nathanael for his prejudice or to commend him for his lack of guile? Do we expect God to condemn us for our failings or to spot that which is commendable in us? It seems to me that God loves us just as we are, and in being loved we change into better people, like Nathanael changing from cynic to believer in the space of a few minutes.
It is a bit like the story of the wind and the sun arguing about who was the greatest:
“We shall have a contest,” said the Sun.
Far below, a man travelled a winding road. He was wearing a warm winter coat.
“As a test of strength,” said the Sun, “Let us see which of us can take the coat off of that man.”
“It will be quite simple for me to force him to remove his coat,” bragged the Wind.
The Wind blew so hard, the birds clung to the trees. The world was filled with dust and leaves. But the harder the wind blew down the road, the tighter the shivering man clung to his coat.
Then, the Sun came out from behind a cloud. Sun warmed the air and the frosty ground. The man on the road unbuttoned his coat.
The sun grew slowly brighter and brighter.
Soon the man felt so hot, he took off his coat and sat down in a shady spot.
Can we see God as the sun? Shining love upon us until we feel safe enough to remove the protective overcoats and masks and coping mechanisms? When you come to Jesus in prayer remember that it is the real you that the Lord loves. Amen.