If you want to know something about someone, often you start with where they come from. When I was in seminary in North Carolina, there were only a handful of us from the northeast. So when I heard that the incoming class included a Marine chaplain-in-training who was from Pennsylvania, I went over to say hello. I asked her where she was from, and she said she was from a small town that nobody had ever heard of. I said, “What would that be, someplace like Womelsdorf?” and her eyes got really wide. I have no idea why I chose that place, except that I’ve always thought the name sounds funny. I had never even been there, but I can hear myself saying something like, “Can anything good come from Womelsdorf?”
It was actually kind of an embarrassing moment. I had sort of insulted her hometown. I didn’t mean it that way, but that’s how it could have come across. The experience does, however, leave me with some sympathy for Nathanael, at that point still a disciple-to-be, who hears about Jesus of Nazareth, and makes the offhand, snarky comment,
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” [John 1:46]
For a long time, Nazareth was held to be a backwater up in the Judean hills. It was far from the Mediterranean coast, which was the most cosmopolitan area, and far from Jerusalem, which would have been the center of both faith and politics. That gave rise to a tradition of hearing Nathanael’s comment as an expression of the attitude “that Galileans were impious hillbillies detached from Israel‘s religious center.”
Enter the archaeologists. As a recent National Geographical article puts it,
“Gallilee — long thought to have been a rural back water and an isolated Jewish enclave —was in fact becoming more urbanized and romanized during Jesus’ day than scholars once imagined, and partly by the fact that Jesus’ boyhood home was just three miles from Sepphoris, the Roman provincial capital. Although the city isn’t mentioned in the Gospels, an ambitious building campaign fueled by Galilee’s ruler, Herod Antipas, would have attracted skilled workers from all the surrounding villages. Many scholars think it’s reasonable to imagine Jesus, a young craftsman living nearby, working at Sepphoris — and, like a college freshman, testing the boundaries of his religious upbringing.”
Then the excavations in town continued and they have discovered the largest-known concentration of Jewish ritual baths — and a complete absence (at least so far) of pig bones, suggesting that despite the Roman presence the area was actually a sort of Bible Belt.
So Phillip’s comment could mean
1) Can anything good come out of that hick town? Or
2) Can anything good come from that bunch of construction workers? or
3) Can anything good come from a bunch of Bible nerds?
Take your pick: whom do you trust least? Updated a little, would it be somebody from Utah, a Teamsters steward, or a Southern Baptist? We aren’t quite sure where Nathanael would have pigeonholed Jesus on this continuum, but somehow I do think Jesus has the same problem now that he did then. People think that he’s going to fall easily into some kind of category and he refuses to do that.
Part of the problem is that so many folks are so loud in proclaiming that he is on their side, or that they know exactly what he would say and do in the twenty-first century. I would put myself in that group, too. I am sure, very sure, that he would be standing up for the poor and for migrants and for the decent treatment of women. But are my notions of how to do that the same as his would be? I hope so. I hope so, and I am certain enough to make phone calls and write some letters and even pay the occasional visit to a legislative office about it. But what if I encounter someone with different notions of how to do things, someone who is not just some cynical staffer who has memorized the talking points or an angry partisan who has drunk the Kool-Aid? Mind you, those people are out there. So, too, looking the other way, are folks who plaster bumperstickers on their cars or their guitar cases like they are hex signs that will ward off all evil from the land. (How am I doing on these stereotypes?)
Jesus refused to let Nathanael do that to him. That’s what his (to us) weird response meant.
“When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’” [John 1:47-48]
There’s a whole, beautiful passage of Micah where the prophet promises a day when God will act so that people can turn their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks [4:3].
“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid.” [Micah 4:3b-4a]
Jesus tells Nathanael he has seen him in a place like that. Whatever it was that divided them – and there must have been something – he told him flat out that he could still see him in the kingdom of God, because Jesus saw that his heart was right:
“Here is truly an Israelite, in whom there is no deceit.” [John 1:47]
It was to that kind of open heart that Nathanael responded, even to the point of confessing,
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” [John 1:49]
Now, neither you nor I can see people’s hearts like Jesus did, and does. That’s why it’s all the more important that we give people the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. So often, what brings out something good in someone is the expectation that it’s in there somewhere. Nathanael went along with Jesus, and no doubt was there when he saw him do for others what he had done for him. There was Zacchaeus, the tax collector who spontaneously offered to return all that he had ever extorted. There was the woman taken in adultery, whose life he saved and then told her, “Go, and sin no more.” There was a man so far out of his mind that the people of his town had to chain him up so that he wouldn’t hurt himself, and when Jesus left him he was sitting there calmly and making sense. He could see past Peter’s fears that led Peter to deny him. He could see through James’ and John’s bragging and boasting about who was the greatest. Don’t you think he does the same for us (whoever “us” is) and for “those people” (whoever they are)?
George Fox, a founder of the Quakers, said, “Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”