A Provocation: Second Sunday After the Epiphany: January 14, 2018: John 1:43-51

John 1:43-51
1:43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”

1:44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.

1:45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

1:46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

1:47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

1:48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

1:49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

1:50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”

1:51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

A Question or Two:

Some Longer Reflections:

“Follow me.”

With these words, it all starts: all Christian life and Christian theology.  And not just Christian life and theology: Jesus has issued the summons a rabbi offers to a potential student, and Philip responds.

Becoming a student requires moving your feet, committing your self, engaging in the bodily work of study.  Studying changes you forever.  Every actual student discovers this.  Philip clearly knows it in this scene.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer also knew what study requires.

His book, translated into English as The Cost of Discipleship, is originally titled simply: Nachfolge.  The physical fact of following is the heart of discipleship.  For Bonhoeffer, it was clear that this following consisted in “obedience unto death, even death on a cross.”  This, all too often, leads to masochistic theology that courts opposition and begs for persecution.

But Bonhoeffer was no masochist.

I read him as a realist.  Following Jesus and learning Torah from him requires a settled realization that the task of the messiah always tangles you up in the very real complications of the very real world.  “The world remains the world,” he says in his Ethics, and he means it.  Too much of Christian hope seems (to me, at least) to be made of cotton candy.  It is sweet and airy, and it will make you sick to your stomach if you make it your regular diet.  Bonhoeffer expected that Christian hope would have to make its way in the real world where things are difficult to figure out.

The storyteller in John’s gospel knows this, as well.

All of this makes Jesus’ comment upon meeting Nathanael most interesting.  He says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  Some interpreters waste their time (and their moral authority) by supposing that we should read this is a veiled insult directed at Jews in general.  These interpreters suppose this statement to mean that Nathanael stands out because, unlike other Jews, he (at least) is honest.


Stop it.

We are done with interpretation like that.

Two things to notice:

First, Jesus refers to Nathanael as an Israelite.  Of course this is appropriate, because he is Jewish.  He simply is.  But it is worth noting that Jesus uses the form of reference (Ἰσραηλίτης: Israelite) that Jews use in ancient texts when speaking to other Jews, a form of reference that claims the other as a brother Jew.  When outsiders speak of Jews, or when Jews speak to outsiders, they refer to Jews, not as “Israelites,” but as Ἰουδαίοι (Judeans).  Jesus begins by calling Nathanael his Jewish brother.

Second, Jesus says that Nathanael has no “guile.”  I am guessing that you have, for the most part, not used that word recently.  At least, not when speaking aloud.  People know what the word means, but we don’t say it much.  The word, of course, refers to clever trickery.  It implies the playing of word games meant only to trip and take advantage.

Guile is a tool used particularly by people with power to trick people without power.  Think of the old song, The Preacher and the Slave by Joe Hill.  The chorus goes:

You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and Pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (It’s a lie).

These beguiling words are offered by preachers to keep workers and other common folk quiet and subservient.

Listen to the stories told next to the hashtag #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter.

Read the comment sections that follow these stories, or listen to the dismissive comments made by opponents.  “What about mistreatment of men?” someone will ask.  “Don’t white lives matter?” asks another.  These questions are wonderful examples of guile.

And that is what Nathanael does not have.

That is a good thing.  Nathanael has no power to preserve.  He is a person of faith living under Roman domination.  Guile will be of little use against Rome.  People with power are not impressed with fancy word play, and that is why (it seems to me) that it is of little use to get suckered into Twitter matches with the president-for-now.  Some of what he tweets is politically offensive to me and to those who share my particular political positions.  But some of what he tweets has struck even members of his own party as foolish and unhelpful.  (Note, for instance, the reaction of Mike Rounds, Republican senator from my home state.)

But responding with clever wordplay will (for the most part) make little difference.

If the task of the Body of Christ is the task that led Jesus through his life and career as messiah, then our task is to participate in the raising of the Creation out of death.  This will not be accomplished by guile, but by simple, stubborn following.  Sometimes the task will require nothing other than partisan politics, messy and divisive as that can be.  And sometimes the task will require multi-partisan cooperation on tasks more important than countering juvenile tweets.

“Here is truly was a generation not satisfied with guile.”

That would be a lovely thing to have future generations say about us, regardless of our political persuasion.  We might even get something done that goes beyond partisan politics.