In our house, we are fans of a good detective mystery. My wife and I enjoy Nordic Noir box-sets, but for family-viewing we take in Sherlock or Father Brown or Death in Paradise, depending on the mood. There are the tiny clues, so easily-overlooked. Once they are assembled, there is the tension of living with a lack of clarity, the truth of the matter hidden—until that moment of revelation, the sudden dawning of what had taken place, as blindingly obvious now as it had been opaque before. An epiphany.
All that said, let us turn to our reading from the Gospel.
I want to ask the question, what was Nathanael doing under the fig tree where Jesus saw him?
What was he doing there?
That, you see, is the question that has got under my skin. That is bugging me. And to answer that question, we must play the detective.
The first piece of evidence I want to consider is this: we meet Nathanael in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, and then he does not appear by name again until the last chapter, where we discover that he came from Cana (John 21:2).
The second piece of evidence I want to consider is this: to paraphrase the conversation between them, Jesus says to Nathanael, there is nothing deceitful about your character but nonetheless you will see what the deceitful Jacob saw in a dream when he ran away from home having greatly angered his brother (Genesis 28:10-22).
The third piece of evidence I want to consider is this: immediately following on from this encounter, John tells us that Jesus and his new disciples attended a wedding in Cana, at which Jesus performed the first of his signs—turning water into wine—thus revealing his glory (John 2:1-12).
Here, then, is my hunch:
that whatever Nathanael was doing under that fig tree (and whether he was already known to Philip, or simply caught-up in the slipstream of Jesus’ call and Philip’s response) he was there—as opposed to anywhere else—because he had run away from home;
that Jesus speaks into his fearful heart in such a way that connects where Nathanael finds himself in that moment with the big story of God’s faithfulness we read in Scripture;
that as a result, Nathanael was empowered to follow Jesus back to Cana and be reconciled with his family; and that in this context, the initial encounter between Nathanael and Jesus is ratified or finds a fulfilment.
That is my hunch. And yes, it is based on circumstantial evidence alone. There is nothing I can do to prove or disprove it. It would not stand up in court, and there is no reason to take it as gospel. Yet I find it compelling; a tantalising personal story hidden within the bigger picture. One that would be in keeping with the person of Jesus as encountered by countless men, women, and children since.
If I were to ask you what have been your ‘Aha!’ moments, when Jesus opened-up your life through opening-up Scripture, I wonder what you would say?
Do you have a favourite story from the Bible, one of which you can say, ‘This is where it began for me’ or ‘This is where the whole Jesus thing first made sense’ or ‘This is where that story became my story’? A story you return to over and over.
Or can you speak of a more recent example, where, reading or listening to a story from the Bible, your life took a new direction; you set off on the latest adventure of faith?
I know that this happens, because I have heard the stories of asylum-seekers who met Jesus reading the Gospels. I have heard the stories of people who became Christians attending a Confirmation service; or who heard a call to be ordained at an Ordination service. And I also know that this happens because of the times it has happened to me, such as the time that I heard, with Abraham, the call to set out from where we lived and go to the place God would show us.
What about you?