Sunday, January 15, 2012

the calling of Nathanael


May my words be in the Name of the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit – Amen.

Today in our Gospel we have the story of the calling of Nathanael … and a strange wee story it is too; Nathanael comes across as rather a prickly character … first when Philip tells them to come meet Jesus of Nazareth he says 'can anything good come out of Nazareth?' … when he does meet Jesus, his response to being called a true Israelite is basically 'and what do you know about me?' And then there is his response to Jesus telling him he saw him under the fig tree … he goes from being cynical to declaring Jesus the Son of God & the king of Israel … which seems a rather over the top reaction to someone saying they saw you under a tree!

So let's try to look at what is going on here a little more closely … first of all, exactly who was Nathanael? We don't have a lot of information on him … he is at the Jordan, with the followers of John the Baptist, so he is clearly a spiritual man;

next Philip goes running to him to tell him that they have found the one whom Moses and the prophets spoke, in other words the Messiah … indicative I think that Philip at least thinks that he is the kind of man who would want to be with the Messiah & that he would be a good man to be at the Messiah's side from the outset … he is present in the final scene in John's Gospel, where Jesus eats with his disciples on the beach … which tells us he was with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry to the end … and it is stated in that last chapter that he is from Cana …

but also, as all the others present on the beach are apostles, it seems that he also must be one of the 12 … which can seem a bit confusing as his name isn't mentioned in the other 3 gospels, the Synoptics, and certainly not in the lists given when they talk about the formal calling of the 12 (an incident which John doesn't include) … but that problem is not insurmountable … it is possible that the person named as Bartholomew in the Synoptics and Nathanael in John is one and the same.

First, in the Synoptics the tendency is to pair the apostles off and Bartholomew is paired with Philip … the same person who is his companion in John; second, he wouldn't be the only apostle to have more than one name … famously Simon was also know as Peter … and finally, the name 'Bartholomew' is what is called a patronymic … in Aramaic the word 'Bar' in front of a name means 'son of'; much like 'mac' in Ireland. So 'Bartholomew' means 'son of Ptolomeis' … it is quite likely that he had another name also, which might well have been Nathanael …

So knowing a little more about Nathanael, let's look over that scene a little more … first, why does he say 'can anything good come out of Nazareth'? Scholars suggest it sounds a bit like a saying, something like a proverb … now Nazareth is in Galilee and Galilee was regarded as being a bit backward in ancient Israel … the place where the folk from Judea, who thought of themselves as being more sophisticated, thought of as being full of country bumpkins … but as Nathanael is from Cana, and Cana is in Galilee so that isn't likely the motivation … but Nazareth was a fairly small and unimportant place, and Cana seems to have been a bit more important, where a royal official was stationed to collect taxes and deal with administrative matters … so perhaps it was a Cananite being superior about a Nazarean …

In any case, he does what Philip says: he goes to see … and as he approaches Jesus, Jesus says something that on the face of it seems rather nice … he calls him a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit … but it seems to me that Nathanael doesn’t take the compliment well … he still seems a bit prickly … perhaps even hostile … 'how do you know me?' he says … it certainly seems a bit challenging … he almost seems sensitive or defensive … but Jesus seems to turn it all around by saying he saw him under the fig tree … and again, it seems that to say that someone is under a fig tree is something of a saying … it means that someone is a student of of the Torah and the law … a bit like our expression of the 'groves of academe' meaning someone is at third level …

but understanding that Jesus isn't speaking about a literal fig tree here doesn't really serve to explain Nathanael's reaction to the remark … however, perhaps the clue is in his reaction to Jesus' first statement that he is a true son of Israel … I've already said that it strikes me that Nathanael seems a bit defensive about the remark … why? Is it because of his other name, Bartholomew … which means Bar-tolomeis?

names, as you know have meanings … Bar means son of … but son of who? There is an Aramaic word 'tolmas' which means furrow or plough … and there is a Greek name 'Ptolomey' … Hebrews, as you know, were quite keen on purity in all its forms … was Nathanael sensitive as to his status as a real Israelite because he had a name that suggested Greek ancestry? This suggestion is made a little stronger by the realisation that the friend and companion of Nathanael Bar Ptolemy in all four Gospels is Philip … a man who also bears a Greek name …

so perhaps the prickly, aggressive response to being called a true son of Israel is promoted by years of feeling not quite good enough, a life-time of little jibes about not being a 'real Jew' … and when Jesus speaks he fears it is the lead up to yet another put-down … but Jesus next words turns it all around … he says before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree … before Philip called you, I knew you for what you really are, someone who is a student of God's Word, a lover and seeker after the truth that only God has to offer …

Jesus has looked into the very heart of Nathanael … he has seen his true self so well and so deeply that Nathanael knows that Jesus can be only one person … the Son of God … the King of Israel … the Messiah … so, this is what he declares … and then he follows Jesus for the rest of his life …

We can't know for sure that this is what prompted Nathanael's response … a lot of what I've said could be categorised as speculation, what-if, and maybe … but we can know this: whatever the reason behind it all, Jesus' words prompted an amazing response in Nathanael … taking him in moments from being someone who would declare that nothing good can come out of Nazareth to being someone who would call someone from there the Son of God … what Jesus said touched Nathanael deeply … because in that moment he felt himself to be truly known … known so deeply and intimately that it could only have one source … the divine … we, through our baptism and through the relationship we have with Jesus in his body they Church, also have it available to us to be as deeply known as Nathanael was that day … and I pray that, being so know, the response of us, and all God's children will be that of Nathanael … to follow Jesus faithfully for the rest of our lives … amen

Sermon notes: 15 Jan 2012 (Epiphany 2)

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