© 2021 Evan D. Garner
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Gravette? Can anything good come out of Pea Ridge or Harrison? Out of Seattle or San Francisco? Out of Dardanelle or Delaware?
Today’s gospel lesson is a little bit geography, a little bit theology, and a whole lot of expectation. And, if we don’t hear what’s really going on between Jesus and Nathanael, we will miss a word of encouragement that feels pretty important in a time when encouragement isn’t easy to find.
Look at the way Philip sets up Nathanael for disappointment: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote…” That’s not a casual invitation. Philip isn’t inviting Nathanael to come and hear a powerful preacher or meet a charismatic leader. He’s telling Philip that he has found the singular hope that God’s people had been waiting on for a thousand years. “This is it!” he tells Nathanael. “This is the one! This is the person whom Moses in the Torah and the great prophets of our people told us to look for.” But, as soon as Philip goes on to tell Nathanael that he’s talking about a man from Nazareth, all the energy and excitement and expectation in his words evaporate.”
We don’t know a lot about Nathanael. John is the only New Testament author to mention him by name, and he only mentions him twice—once in today’s lesson and again when Jesus appears to a handful of disciples after he had been raised from the dead. But, whoever he is, Nathanael seems to know his Hebrew scriptures pretty well. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks. That sounds like a slight against the people of Jesus’ hometown, and it very well may have been, but what Nathanael was probably trying to remind Philip is that nowhere in the Torah or in the prophets is Nazareth even mentioned, much less depicted as the place from which the messiah will come. Bethlehem, sure. Jerusalem makes since. Even Egypt is possible. But Nazareth?
As far as we can tell, back then Nazareth was one stop past nowhere—a tiny village home to some working-class folks with no claim on greatness. Nowadays, it’s the largest city in the northern part of Israel, but back then it wasn’t even worth mentioning. The first non-biblical reference to Nazareth that archaeologists have found is from around 200 AD. There were plenty of cities from that part of Palestine that could have produced a prominent religious or political figure—Caesarea Philippi, Capernaum, Tiberius, Bethsaida—but pretending that the messiah was supposed to come from Nazareth is like expecting the next President of the United States to come from Ozark or Prairie Grove. But, despite what the scriptures said, Philip had found someone worth meeting, and, despite all of his expectations, Nathanael agreed to meet him.
They say you only get once chance to make a first impression, and Jesus was working with a deficit right from the start. Yet with one sentence he managed to flip everything around. When he saw Nathanael approaching, Jesus said, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Those are flattering words to say to a stranger, but they are more than a mere compliment.
Another translation says, “Behold a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false!” The word translated as “deceit” or “false” is literally the word for “bait” or “lure,” a fishing or hunting word that implied setting a trap for someone by putting on airs or making a false presentation of oneself. In other words, Jesus identified Nathanael as a genuine descendant of Israel who didn’t need any pretense in order to convince others of his standing in the faith. That means that, in the exact subject area from which Nathanael had raised a reasonable objection to Jesus’ pedigree, Jesus repays Nathanael’s skepticism with a generous affirmation. He compliments the very thing Nathanael had been using against him. How remarkable!
Nathanael, it seems, was immediately set back on his heels. “Where did you get to know me?” he asked, making almost as little sense as Jesus’ words had made to him. Jesus replied, “I saw you sitting under the fig tree before Philip called you.” At first glance, that seems like a strange or even off-topic response, but it could be that Jesus referred to a fig tree because, in the rabbinic tradition, scholars of the Jewish faith were said to have gathered frequently under the shade of fig trees to discuss the nuances of their religion. If so, Jesus is doubling down on his flattery. Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deception. But how do you know that about me? Because I can tell that you are a careful student of the scriptures.
Instead of arguing with Nathanael or defending himself or trying to explain how it is possible for the Son of God to come from Nazareth, Jesus finds and praises the best qualities in his intellectual adversary. Instead of tearing him down, which, when it comes to rabbinical arguments, we know Jesus to be fully capable of, Jesus compliments the skeptic. “Well done!” he seems to say. “You’re right: no one is looking to Nazareth as the place from which God’s anointed one will come, but, if you’ll give it a chance, you’ll see some pretty spectacular things.” And what is Nathanael’s reaction? “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
What Jesus gave Nathanael was grace—an unmerited, undeserved, unearned dollop of favor. The benefit of the doubt. A chance to grow beyond his initial impressions. And that grace had the power to flip everything that Nathanael had already decided about Jesus on its head. All Jesus did was find the source of the conflict between them and breathe a little grace right there into the heart of it. Somehow, if Jesus had decided to pick a rhetorical fight with Nathanael or make a shameful example of him, I don’t think the story would have turned out the same way. Do you?
Grace seems to be in short supply these days. When was the last time you went driving through the country? You don’t have to get very far outside of town before you find yourself in the middle of nowhere. Some of you live out there in the middle of nowhere, where you can go a month without seeing your neighbors. I’ve noticed that, as I get further away from the center of town, the political signs in people’s yards begin change. And, although I’m ashamed to admit it, I’ve also noticed that, along with those signs, something begins to change in my heart and in my mind. All of my expectations of who I might meet and what kind of people they might be begin to shift. Why is that? I’m a child of the rural South, yet it has become pretty hard to see what part of me belongs out there, even if “out there” is really just a few miles down the road.
I don’t mean to suggest that the way forward for us is to ignore the very real dangers that arise when political, economic, and cultural differences become radicalized and weaponized. And I don’t pretend that other people who don’t look or sound like me wouldn’t have a harder time if their car broke down in the wrong part of Arkansas at sunset. But I do mean to suggest that doubling down on our worst expectations of other people won’t get us anywhere except more angry and more scared and more lost.
Remember what Jesus said about himself: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
In Jesus Christ, God’s grace—God’s unconditional love—is breathed into this world, into each one of us. In him, we are not broken down or torn apart but built up by God’s love and favor. God loves each one of us, not because we deserve it—not because we’re any better than anyone else—but simply because of God’s infinite goodness and mercy. If God can love you simply because that’s who God is, that love has the power to free you up to love others in the same way.
If you can remember that you are lovable not because of who you are or where you’re from or what you think but just because, then you can remember the same about others. That’s the only way anything will ever change. That’s the only way our expectations will ever get flipped upside down—when the love of God surprises us into believing that we, too, can love others just because God loves them first.