1 Samuel 3.1-10;
NATHANAEL wonders whether anything good can come from that proverbially
inconsequential place, Nazareth. (It is the kind of gibe that we who were born
in Sidcup are used to.) There is only one way to find out.
Philip's "Come and see!" recalls John the Baptist's "Behold the Lamb of God!"
(John 1.36). Testimony to Jesus Christ is not a matter of going on about him,
but of getting out of other people's line of sight so that they can see and
decide for themselves.
St Augustine, for whom two and two frequently made five, thought that
Nathanael must have been a dreadful sinner. Why else was he lurking under a fig
tree when Jesus saw him? Adam and Eve tried to hide their shame behind fig
leaves. So, too, said Augustine, did Nathanael.
Jesus, as usual, is kinder than Augustine. For Jesus, Nathanael is a
"guileless" child of Israel, the patriarch who was formerly known as Jacob.
Unlike his famously shifty forefather, Nathanael is a straightforward
character, a blunt northerner in fact.
Guile is primarily a sin of the tongue - saying one thing, intending or
concealing another. It is a thoroughly modern vice, much exercised by
spin-doctors and those who sell us what we neither need nor want. If guile is
smooth talking, perhaps an even greater compliment is being paid Nathanael.
Perhaps there is an allusion here to one of whom it was said that there was "no
deceit in his mouth"(Isaiah 53.9).
What Jesus already knows about him strikes Nathanael as nothing short of a
miracle. For Nathanael, this was "the first of signs" - not what happened next
at the wedding at Cana. His response is a tad over the top, even if
substantially correct. He piles on the praise, lavishing on Jesus the titles of
the Messiah. Jesus is unimpressed by tributes based on his apparent powers of
clairvoyance. Here is the first hint we have in John of a health warning found
in all the Gospels. Miracles can be dangerously misleading.
Nathanael will see "greater things" than displays of extrasensory
perception. Like Jacob, he will see a ladder of mercy, set between heaven and
earth. This ladder is different from most. It is not Plato's ladder of love, by
which one ascends by stages to the vision of the Beautiful and the Good. Nor is
it the ladder of perfection described by the medieval English mystic, Walter
Hilton, the staircase the ardent soul must mount from the myrknesse of
sin to union with God.
It is most certainly not any rung-by-rung method of self-improvement. Images
of Jacob's ladder, of heaven opened, of hurrying angels attending on the Son of
Man, belong with all the other figures with which this Gospel teems. By them
John unfolds the mystery of who Jesus is. As John's Jesus did not say, but
might have done: "I am the true ladder."
The traffic of the angels anticipates the interplay of ascending and
descending in which John so delights. At the cross, that counterpoint is at its
starkest, the paradox most acute. Christ's descent to our depths becomes an
ascent to his throne.
The thing about ladders is that they must rest securely at both ends. The
Jesus of John's Gospel is at once the Word who is God and the Word made flesh.
Both ends are secure. The ladder is grounded where we are. This is good news,
if where we are isn't very nice, and if, as is the case, there is nowhere else
to start. A weary W. B. Yeats wrote:
I must lie down where all
the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop
of the heart.
We know little about Nathanael and his fig tree, except that he does not
return to its shade. He reappears once in John's story, in its haunting
epilogue, where he is named among the disciples to whom Jesus "showed himself"
by the Sea of Galilee (John 21.2).
Why had Nathanael gone back to his fishing? At the start, his taunt about
Nazareth was that of a sceptic. Now - when all seems over - there are these
tales of an empty tomb. Is his scepticism once more aroused? If so, the
invitation to breakfast on the beach echoes the earlier one.
"Come and see." "Taste and see." There's still only the one way to find out.
Nathanael isn't the Bartholomew of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as those who
feel compelled to tidy up loose ends assert. Nathanael isn't Bartholomew - he's
Nathanael. He knows who he is, even if we don't. His name is one of the many
references to particular places and people, otherwise unknown, against which we
stub our toes in this text. Nathanael's cameo appearance is an indication that
there is rather more history in the fourth Gospel than those who see it as one
long sermon allow.