Sunday, January 14, 2018

Nathanael: one in whom there is no guile

May my words be in the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Gospel reading today introduces us to the character of Nathanael. His name occurs only in the Gospel according to St John, and then only twice; here, and again in the final chapter, so what is there to be said concerning this early disciple of our Lord? Quite a lot as it happens. To begin with, it is a long-standing tradition of the Church that he be identified as someone who is far better known to us in the Gospels – the Apostle St Bartholomew.

Now there are some that consider this mere wishful thinking, a desire to give someone like Nathanael who plays such an important part in the early recognition of our Lord for who he really is a more prominent position in the Gospel narratives. However, there are in fact some good reasons for thinking that the tradition may in fact be correct.

The first is that the lists of the Apostles that we have in Scripture, such as the Gospel according to St Luke, the name Bartholomew is paired with that of Philip. Now it was common in these lists to pair together apostles who were associated with each other in some way – for example the brothers Peter and Andrew, and James and John. We can see from our passage from St John's gospel today that Philip held Nathanael in high regard – so much so that as soon as he suspected he had found the one who might be the promised messiah he went straight-away and found him. There much surely have been some close association between them; making it natural that if Nathanael was indeed to be numbered among the disciples then his name would be joined with that of Philip.

But what of the difficulty of the fact that this would mean that he is called by one name by John and another by the other evangelists? This is not so great a problem as it might appear if we take into account that Bartholomew is what is called a patronymic – a kind of a surname that identifies who one's father is. Bartholomew means 'son of Tolomeus', and it is quite certain he  would have had a proper first name. And it would, of course, have been well known to the evangelist St John as he was one of the Apostles himself. Also, the fact that when he appears in the last chapter of St John with the small group who see our Lord by the Sea of Galilee, all others of those present whose names we are given are apostles, making it likely that Nathanael also is to be considered as being among their number.

So much for who he might have been. But what can we say of his character? Our first thought might be to think that he was a man to come to hasty conclusions, someone who judges a book by its cover. He does, after all, when told where this person who might be the messiah is from, immediately respond by asking 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' But there is more to his response than might be gleaned at first reading. Nowhere in Scripture was there any indication that the messiah was to come that place. Indeed, we know ourselves that it was prophesied he would come from Bethlehem. Now we know that in fact that this was the place of our Lord's birth. But Nathanael had no indication of that. So it was not unreasonable that he might be suspicious of the idea of a messiah whose origins were elsewhere.

Indeed, his doubts may be said to do him credit, as they show he knows his scriptures well. And perhaps very well indeed. For we must also consider the implications of where it was that our Lord said that he was before Philip called him – under the fig tree. There is more significance to that location than may be immediately evident; for in rabbinic tradition a fig tree was considered to be a fitting place for a teacher to sit with his students and discuss the scriptures. This makes it likely that Nathanael was himself a rabbi, a man well versed in the scriptures – in other words, a man of great holiness, intelligence, and learning.

We also have a direct indication of what kind of a man he is from the lips of our Lord himself, who says he is 'a true Israelite, in whom is no guile.' High praise indeed; but Nathanael does not seem overly impressed when he first hears it. He naturally wonders what puts this man who has never laid eyes on him in a position to say such deeply penetrating things about his character. But he is very impressed indeed at what our Lord has to say next in answer 'I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.' He knows that this man was not there when his friend came and asked him to come and see the one who might be the messiah; and he understands at once that this knowledge could only be available to him by supernatural means. And he knows immediately the implications of this – that this man must be the Son of God and the King of Israel. In other words, he is indeed the promised Messiah.

This understanding changes his life. He at once becomes a follower of Jesus. And we know that he stays with him through all his ministry; because, as I have already mentioned, he was among those who met with him after his Resurrection on the shores of Galilee. And, presuming that he was indeed one of the Apostles, then he was faithful to the one he knew to be the Son of God unto death, suffering like all of the Apostles, save St John, a martyr's death.

There are implications, of course, for all of us in the life of St Nathanael, just as there are in the lives of all the great saints. But as I finish, let us just consider this. Here we have a man of intelligence and learning and holiness, a man whom Christ himself tells us in whom there is no guile. Such a man will not only not deceive others, he will not deceive himself. Once he knows the truth he will stick to it, whatever the cost, all his days. Such is the man Nathanael was on this earth and continues to be in heaven; and such a person we all must try to be and I pray all here will indeed try to be such as he and at the last join with St Nathanael and angels and saints in heaven. Amen.

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