Nazareth & Nathaniel

 If someone were doing a ranking of Ancient Palestinian towns in Jesus’ day, Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth would certainly be on some kind of worst place to live list. So might Bethlehem, the small town in which Jesus was born.

As for Bethlehem, it was a town long past its glory days. Yes, it had some religious importance. King David, the greatest King the Jewish nation ever had, was from Bethlehem. It was known as the City of David.

Bethlehem was also once known as the town that took in Jews escaping captivity in ancient Babylon. However, by the time Jesus, instead of taking people in, people were moving out of Bethlehem.

Joseph, the human father of Jesus, likely left Bethlehem for this reason. There were no jobs, no opportunity, no long-term security in Bethlehem. The Galilee could provide these things. 

The only reason Jesus was born in Bethlehem was because there was a census that mandated men of the household take their families back to their hometowns to be counted.

Jesus did not grow up in Bethlehem. He grew up in Nazareth, an even humbler, harder-scrabbled town. 

Of all places for a heroic Messiah to come from, Nazareth would be very low on the list. It was so insignificant that there’s no mention of it other than in the Gospels as the hometown of Jesus. And it was so insignificant that in no longer exists.

Biblical historian Bart Ehrman says this about Nazareth, “It was far too small, poor, and insignificant.  Most people had never heard of it and those who had heard didn’t care.   Even though it existed, this is not the place someone would make up as the hometown of the messiah.”

Our gospel reading from John points to this reality. Jesus’ soon-to-be disciple, Nathaniel, whom we’ll be discussing in a bit, is incredulous that the Messiah could come from Nazareth. Nathaniel, after hearing of Jesus’ hometown, quips, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”

So, that’s Nazareth. Nazareth is, or has the reputation of being, a “nothing good comes from there” kind of town.

 

What about Nathaniel, also known as Bartholomew? Who is Nate?

We don’t have a lot of information about Nathaniel. The only detailed mention of him comes from our reading.

Well, Nathaniel was from nearby Cana. Yes, the same Cana where Jesus performs his first miracle. Now, Cana wasn’t exactly Monte Carlo. It was for many a nothing town, too. Maybe there was a cross-town rivalry going on.

Nathaniel was likely a common tradesman, maybe a fisherman. If he was something else, that would have been noted.

He and Philip are good friends. They seem to be theology nerds. In verse 45, Philip introduces Jesus by pointing to the Hebrew scripture they study and how this Jesus is the promised one they’ve been reading and studying about.

Nathaniel and Philip were Bible Study buddies!

How else do we know Nathaniel was a student of scripture? Let’s skip to verse 48. Jesus makes his declaration, “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” We might say, here is an Israelite who is a straight-shooter.” Nathaniel frowns at this and asks, “How do you know that. We just met.” And Jesus states in verse 48, “I saw you under the fig tree.”


What was Nathaniel doing under the fig tree, maybe you’re asking. Well, that phrase is a give-away. It is an ancient Jewish idiom. To sit under a fig tree means to engage in the activity of contemplating scripture. That’s what Jesus saw Nathaniel doing. He was meditating on scripture.

Now, Jesus did not see Nathaniel and Philip’s discussion of Nazareth where Nathaniel degraded Jesus’ hometown. But Jesus reads Nathaniel perfectly. He’s a straight-shooter. He speaks his truth without a filter. He avoids even white lies to avoid hurt feelings.

I have a son like this. I’m sure you know folks like this yourself. I’ve been watching the TV show Young Sheldon whose main character is clearly on the Autism spectrum. And one of the traits of folks on the spectrum is that they have no filter. What they see and think comes out unfiltered when they choose to speak.

Now, if you’re on the other side of this unfiltered truth-telling, it is not always so fun! Corey regularly pokes my tummy as if to say, yes, Dad, it is fatter than it used to be. Ouch every time for me!

Most folks would not say this unfiltered way of being is a positive characteristic, at least not always. Sheldon is often disliked or excluded because of his straight-shooting regardless of the context.

Jesus, however, sees the positive in Nathaniel, even in his messy trait of being unfiltered. Here is a man in whom there is no deceit. That indeed is putting a positive spin on it!

My grandmother modeled Jesus’ knack for seeing the best in people. Her pastor told the story at her memorial about this gift of hers. One day, as she came through the line after worship and they exchanged pleasantries, my grandma complimented the pastor on being so nice. The pastor, known for his hellfire and brimstone preaching, responded back by saying, “Most wouldn’t agree with you there. I lose my temper at the world sometimes.” To which my grandmother, incredulous, said, “Oh, I can’t believe that. You’re doing great.”

This little interaction touched the pastor, softened his heart. As he told the story, he got emotional. It is a blessing to have the best of you seen and uplifted. We need that every once in a while, don’t we?

Well, we need to be givers of that! How about trying to make a habit of seeing the best in people. Not just in people. How about trying to make a habit of seeing the best in situations as well.

I end with this postscript.

As for Nathaniel, saw the best in Jesus in return. Jesus’ best is who he is – Rabbi, the Son of God, and Messiah all rolled into one! Nathaniel sees who Jesus is and follows him.

Nathaniel will go on to become one of the great builders of the church, spreading the good news to Persia and India and as far from Palestine as Armenia. He is seen as the founder of the Armenian Church to this day.

Nathaniel, the straight shooter, followed Jesus of Nazareth and did well for himself. Something good indeed does come from Nazareth and from Cana too.

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