Before we continue, I have a brief assignment: Have another look at yesterday’s gospel reading, John 1:43-51. Pay particular attention to Nathanael.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Did Jesus’ comment about Nathanael strike you? “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Surely that’s a compliment when it comes from no less a person than Jesus! But beware: The Teacher has a way of drawing us in and then turning the tables. In fact, he does this so skillfully that his “opponents” in conversation often don’t know what hit them until later. Maybe this is one of those cases.
Look what Nathanael has just said about Philip’s news: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” To be fair, to Nathanael and many of his more privileged contemporaries, Nazareth had “a reputation” — it was provincial, a place of little consequence, a “backwater” In short, Nazareth was a rat hole. The Sticks, as my granny might put it. Not a place you’d think of when you met anyone who mattered, let alone the long-expected Messiah.
So maybe Jesus isn’t complimenting Nathanael on his integrity; maybe he’s just pointing out that Nathanael is willing to say out loud what more “refined” people might hold inside. Maybe it’s more of an acknowledgment of “getting real” — even if that means hanging out a lot of dirty laundry.
Let’s just assume for the moment that Jesus’ appraisal of Nathanael, coming immediately after Nathanael’s blatant attitude, isn’t an accident: Now, what is Jesus telling us?
Have you ever been in a situation in which you just knew that someone was judging you — maybe because of your clothes, or your accent, or where you’re from — but instead of telling you that you don’t matter, they pretend to be “above” that sort of prejudice, and act like you matter? As in, “I would never judge a book by its cover. I’m not that sort of person!” What if, by drawing attention to Nathanael’s unapologetic prejudice, the real message is about how we go wrong in what we don’t say out loud, in “polite company”?
Time and again in Jesus’ parables, the Kingdom of Heaven thrusts itself into our lives where and when it will — not on our schedule, not according to our goals and expectations. In fact, in many parables, it’s those very expectations that prevent us from seeing the Kingdom in and around us. Nathanael’s willingness to get real exposes just how outrageous the Kingdom is — turning up where we least expect it.
Everything about the Kingdom is upside down, even contradictory: Nathanael doesn’t deceive himself, but in spite of his transparency, he isn’t more ready for the Kingdom than those whose openness is only skin-deep. In the end, he does find his way to a Kingdom mindset: All it takes was Jesus telling Nathanael that he was under a fig tree. And then, to make sure the message is clear, Jesus asks, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?”
In that moment, Nathanael runs headlong and headstrong into that “good thing” that came from the Sticks. The nudge into the Kingdom mindset was a seemingly miraculous glimpse of the past: Where were you when the Kingdom made an appearance?
What does it mean to feign openness, hiding closed hearts and unspoken expectations that go unspoken, even to ourselves? In today’s English, we’d be tempted to label this hypocrisy. But take a closer look: The word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek word hypokrites, which means “actor.” As in, on a stage. Delivering the right lines at the right time, putting on a good performance. You can see why the word gradually came to mean someone who feigns goodness for an ulterior purpose.
From the perspective of the Kingdom parables, when we become too good at feigning goodness, when we begin to believe the lines we are delivering to make ourselves look good, we let the Kingdom slip away. But when we embrace our prejudices and hang them out for all to see — we also turn away from the Kingdom.
The image of the Kingdom is a call to stop delivering our lines, whatever they are, and open ourselves instead to outrageous hidden possibilities. When we pause, even for a moment, taking ourselves seriously as the actors that matter, we open ourselves to impractical compassion, to radical acceptance. It’s only when we stop acting for ourselves and begin acting on behalf of our Neighbors, that the Kingdom suddenly becomes a real presence, again.