A feast of Sister Johanna’s thoughts during these few days. Today and tomorrow she invites us to sit under the fig tree with Nathaniel. Will he become a disciple of Jesus? And let’s ask ourselves as well, will we follow him?
In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, starting with verse thirty-five, John gives us his account of the calling of the disciples. I was pondering this well-known section of the gospel recently, thinking about what it must have been like to be one of those who were called. Their life changed completely, from top to bottom, bottom to top, from the outside in and inside out – all in a matter of minutes. The exact moment of each disciple’s encounter with Jesus, the moment when they realised that following him was the only thing that really mattered, must have been deeply inscribed within their memories. In quiet times, they must have revisited the mysterious occasion, trying to understand its profound effect and meaning.
I notice this time that in John’s gospel, the disciples are excited about Jesus in a way that is less evident in the other gospels. Right from the beginning of their discipleship, they are already talking about Jesus’ identity as saviour. Two of those called immediately tell others that Jesus is the Messiah. Andrew, Peter’s brother, is the first to do so (see John 1:40f). Then Philip makes the same declaration, and tells Nathaniel that they had found ‘him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote.’ And here I begin to slow down.
Something about Nathaniel’s response to this news is absorbing my attention, and I want to explore this feeling. Nathaniel is different. Seemingly, he is not so ready to jump on this Jesus-bandwagon. He is cautious. He points out to Philip that Jesus comes from the lacklustre town of Nazareth. Before we think how silly Nathaniel is being, let’s stop. It can be quite a turn-off to discover that a person everybody is making such a fuss about comes from the kind of place where the only exciting thing that ever happens is… is nothing. The people there are backward. They have no style. They all talk with their own uncultured accent. They’re just losers, we might think. In our day, such a town would probably not be a safe place to live – there’d be gangs, maybe drugs and weapons. “From Nazareth?” Nathaniel asks. “Can anything good come from there?” I can think of quite a few places about which I’d be inclined to say that. And that’s where Jesus comes from.
Then John records the conversation that takes place between Nathaniel and Jesus. It is an unusual one. Interpreting it can be difficult. I ask the Holy Spirit to inspire my imagination and then I let my thoughts play with this scene. I first imagine Jesus speaking to Nathaniel in the rather jovial tones we often adopt in social situations when we meet a new person. I hear Jesus now. He’s saying in a friendly voice to Nathaniel – maybe even clapping him lightly on the back – “Nathaniel! An Israelite in whom there is no deception!” They’re smiling. And they are also sizing each other up. As I think about these words, I realise that there is a subtext here in Jesus’ introductory remark. Jesus seems to be telling Nathaniel that he senses his hesitation about him. But that’s not all. Jesus’ words are not words of correction. There is nothing threatening in them. On the contrary, Jesus’ friendliness suggests that he likes the fact that this Israelite will think for himself and will not deceive him by pretending to be impressed just because everyone else happens to be.
What does Nathaniel make of this? I think he’s secretly pleased. He’s been complimented by Jesus of Nazareth – but in an understated way. We are usually quick to notice compliments, even understated ones. Nathaniel is no different. Probably taking up Jesus’ own joking tone, Nathaniel says to him, “How do you know me?” When we receive an unexpected compliment, sometimes we try to deflect it with a little joke. It isn’t that we don’t like praise. We always do – but it can make us feel momentarily bashful, slightly confused. We’re apt to cover this awkwardness with some bravado. “Of course I’m the admirable human being you think I am! How did you happen to find this out about me?” is what Nathaniel’s playful remark suggests to me.
Those of you who have read my posts before know that I’m apt to take time to develop these lectio reflections so that we can enter more deeply into the sacred text by prayer. I think we should stop here for today. As Jesus and Nathaniel are getting to know each other perhaps we can turn to Jesus in prayer as if meeting him for the first time. What have we heard about him? What does he say to us? Are we playful? Or serious? Tomorrow we will return to this reflection.