Yesterday we were looking at the first meeting between Jesus and Nathaniel as recorded by the Gospel of John in chapter one, verse forty-three and following. The two men seemed to be enjoying some friendly banter, initially. But, as Nathaniel discovers, Jesus’ remarks were more penetrating than he was expecting. Jesus – from Nazareth, of all places!
After the ice is broken – and it breaks astonishingly quickly – Jesus drops the playful tone completely. He comes out with a remark that is so profoundly mysterious that it found entry right into Nathaniel’s deepest centre – his heart. Jesus says to Nathaniel, “Before Philip came to call you, I saw you under the fig tree.”
I turn this over in my mind and undertake some research. I find, unsurprisingly, that this remark has been the subject of deep reflection ever since the early centuries of the Church. What could Jesus have meant by it? Some of the fourth and fifth century Fathers of the Church offer the explanation that the fig tree represents the Law. Jesus is saying that he saw Nathaniel under the shadow of the Law, and that he, Jesus, is calling him into his own light. Maybe this is true. It is a beautiful thought, but I find myself more drawn to the interpretation St John Chrysostom, writing in the late fourth century, gives to Jesus’ words. Chrysostom says that Nathaniel asks his question as a mere human being, but that Jesus gives his answer as God. Chrysostom continues, saying that Jesus, by his words, is telling Nathaniel that he understands him deeply and beholds him as God beholds him – from above, as it were. When Jesus says, ‘I saw you,’ he means, according to Chrysostom, ‘I understood you through and through, understood the character of your life and person’.
John Chrysostom’s insight explains Nathaniel’s complete change of heart – to my mind, anyway. Nathaniel was sceptical about Jesus at first, then he jokes a bit with him, but now he’s caught off-guard by something in Jesus that has moved him. I ponder Jesus’ words and realise that when one is deeply understood by another human being it is a life-changing experience. What’s more, Nathaniel has suddenly seen Jesus’ own character and spiritual power, even as he himself has been seen by Jesus. His defensiveness, hesitation and jocularity all drop away. With a seriousness as profound as Jesus’ own gravity, Nathaniel now says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the king of Israel.” He is in a totally different place from the one he had been in just moments earlier. This is Nathaniel’s turning point – and it takes place not only because of what Jesus has said, but because of Jesus himself, because of the spiritual power of his person and presence, and because Nathaniel has been deeply ‘seen’ by this extremely unusual man – from Nazareth.
Perhaps you who are reading this reflection already know the joyful truth that Jesus is the centre of existence, the centre of reality itself. He is the Beloved of everything that has being, the loving heart of every molecule, every world, every galaxy, every bug and blade of grass and mote of dust. Maybe you already know that every person is formed for Jesus and that Jesus alone is rest for our restless hearts. Nathaniel, despite his initial scepticism, comes to understand this wonderful thing, too – as we see it happen in these words from John’s gospel. For someone like Nathaniel, Jesus does not need to work miracles or do any sensational things. All Jesus needs to do is show up. And all Nathaniel needed to do was to be himself with Jesus, to engage with him honestly. It didn’t take Jesus long to reach Nathaniel at his deepest level. A short encounter is all Jesus needs.
* “Catena aurea: commentary on the four Gospels, collected out of the works of the Fathers: Volume 6, St. John. Oxford: Parker, 1874. Thomas Aquinas”