Father Nicholas Lang
The Second Sunday After Epiphany
Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Before we judge Nathanael too severely, we need to recognize his very human response and judgment. It’s called making an unfair assumption and I’d venture to say we’ve all done it. “He’ll never change.” “She’s always so negative.” “It’s always been that way; it will never get better.” Like Nathanael, we make all sorts of assumptions about people and circumstances. We assume that they will do this or that or what they are thinking about a certain situation. Yes, sometimes we are right but, like Nathanael, not always.
Then there are those times when we look at ourselves and focus on some difficulty we are facing, and we think that things will never be different. It’s certainly a temptation as we hear more bad news about the impact of COVID19, the scarcity of vaccines, the emergence of new variant strains, the enormous toll on lives. “How can any good come out of this,” we may ask. Even when we don’t give voice to our assumptions, they can rattle around in our heads and influence how we react. Assumptions act as limitations. They narrow our vision and can negatively affect our ability to change and grow.
In this brief account of the invitation Jesus offers to his first followers, what seems to impress Nathanael is that Jesus tells him that he saw him sitting under a fig tree? What is the significance of a fig tree in this story? It’s the fig tree from which Adam and Eve took leaves to cover their nakedness when they hid from God and it is the fig tree that Jesus later curses for producing no fruit. I wonder if the message Jesus is sending to Nathanael is that assumptions become our hiding places which are often not fruitful. Had Nathanael not gotten past his assumption about Jesus, he would have missed the opportunity to meet God in Christ. And to be a disciple.
Now Nathanael did not doubt that God would keep God’s promises made to the Hebrew people. His skepticism is based in his doubt that anything good could come out of Nazareth. Nazareth? No way. Not there. So he thought. So he assumed.
But don’t we all have our “Nazareths?” There are places about which we make assumptions and about the people who come from those places. We may have learned to do that from others and what they teach us, from biased societal messages, or we may have had an experience that influences our judgment about others. Our “Nazareths” can become our blind spot, but it also be the catalyst to awaken us to how our beliefs about other places and people need to be challenged and tested. For every assumption we make there is a new relationship to be discovered and a deeper reality to be uncovered. For every Nazareth in our lives there is the invitation to “come and see.” Those Nazareth places can become agents of an epiphany—just as it happened for Nathanael.
Social Scientist Brené Brown has sparked a global conversation about the experiences that bring meaning to our lives—epiphanies of courage, vulnerability, love, belonging, and empathy. She says that true belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are. “True belonging,” she writes, “requires us to believe in and belong to ourselves so fully that we can find sacredness both in being a part of something and in standing alone when necessary.
“But in a culture that is rife with perfectionism and pleasing, and with the erosion of civility, it’s easy to stay quiet, hide in our ideological bunkers, or fit in rather than show up as our true selves, and brave the wilderness of uncertainty and criticism. But true belonging is not something that we negotiate or accomplish with others; it’s a daily practice that demands integrity and authenticity. It’s a personal commitment that we carry in our hearts.”
Jesus was inviting Nathanael to “belong.” “Come and see.” Yes, like Nathanael, it can be very tempting to sit and hide under our “fig tree”—whatever that may be for us and our assumptions can keep us stuck there. Let’s not stay there too long. There is more happening in Nazareth than we might have expected. Over and over Jesus shows up and calls us. That’s what Nathanael wants to tell us today.