The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 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.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 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.” John 1:43-51 NRSV
Nathaniel only appears in John’s Gospel; given that he appears in context with Philip, as does Bartholomew in the Synoptic Gospels, it is assumed they are the same person. Tradition and early writings tell us that Nathaniel/Bartholomew was from Cana. Towns and villages had great rivalries at the time, without benefit of sports teams to diffuse the rivalry. In that frame of reference, Nathaniel’s comment, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is akin to the retort any loyal Missouri Tiger would use about a Kansas Jayhawk on first meeting, or that of every other Texas school towards a University of Texas grad.
Yet something happens to show Nathaniel that those initial words are meant to be eaten. What that “something” is, unfortunately, is not revealed in the passage. We know that Jesus saw Nathaniel doing something under the fig tree, but we are not told what. Much scholarly speculation has been made about that, including use of the fig tree as a symbol of studying the Torah (ancient yeshiva students often met with their teacher under a tree,) and the use of the fig tree as an apocalyptic image of Israel, but spending too much time on that merely detracts from what is shown in this story.
What we do see clearly is that the Gospel, right from the get-go, is spread by action, and not just by Jesus himself. Philip is shown in this passage spreading the Good News in Christ in the very first chapter of the Gospel of John, and later, Jesus himself tells Nathaniel what we would now say in modern-day language, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
The most effective evangelism tool in spreading the Good News in Christ is comprised of our actions–often actions we didn’t even think about at the time–and we don’t always know who saw us out under the fig tree. We are not always privy to how those actions change the lives of others, or plant a seed of thought in another person’s head to be invited into a closer relationship with God. We don’t know when we might be even called to eat our own words and get a miraculous surprise in the process! When it happens, would it be so easy for us to, like Nathaniel, blurt out its divine nature? Or would we try to rationalize it?
When we are open to the Divine Hand in our everyday dealings, we “ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” either.
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepsicatoid