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Claire Matheny ~ Under the Fig Tree

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

Under a tree. An important setting in our Scripture. I began thinking about the different trees of my own life. One particular tree kept coming back to me. I was seven or eight years old. Some friends of my parents had invited me over to spend time with their twin granddaughters. At one point, they showed me their toys, which included a stuffed little bear. This is one I had seen advertised. I had plenty of toys, but not this one. Immediately, I wanted it. Later on, when no one was in the room, I took the little pink and yellow bear. I placed it among my things. They looked for it later on, but I kept my theft a secret and that bear close by.

Some days later, my mother was cleaning out my school bag and came across the little bear. I was panged as soon I saw it emerge in her hand. She asked me where I had gotten the bear. I felt the lie in my mouth. I said that it was someone’s from school. She instructed me to give it back the next day. Two treacheries: I had stolen the bear and now I lied to my mother about where I had gotten it. Now, I was stuck with the bear that had ceased to be a treasure; now it carried my shame. I knew that I must be rid of it.  For reasons only reasonable to seven-year-old me, I tucked the bear in my pocket while at school the next day and took the bear to recess. I went out on the playground and dropped the bear under some dirt and grass by a large tree.

I was relieved to be free of the evidence. However, several times throughout that year the bear seemed to make its way around the trees of the playground as different students found it and wondered out loud about its origins. I did not say a word, but it stung as I remembered my deceit, having condemned the poor bear to a cast-out life far from its rightful parents!

And so, sometimes even now (27 years later) in my dreams, the bear will re-emerge. It circulates on the playground of my subconscious. It serves as a reminder that deceit has a way of lingering. With the blessing of time, I have somehow befriended this bear—not because I am proud of what it represents. However, its presence in my dreams helps me to consider the ways in which I may be deceiving myself or even someone else.

Could it be that Nathanael had no such similar elementary errors, no sins of the heart, no deceptions or demerits to color his journey? No little bears floating around his playground? When Nathanael approaches Jesus the rabbi greets him:  here is one “in whom there is no deceit.” Here is, “a true Israelite, that is, one upstanding in faith.” Could it be that no misdeed lingers? No half-truths told to his mother or teacher?Nothing to smudge his record?

Or, could it be that the lens through which Jesus chooses to see Nathanael is the vision of what can be? His former life will not keep him from living into an upstanding character? For we know that Nathanael is a bit sarcastic. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” he seems to snort at Philip. Surely this man Nathanael, upstanding in his faith he may be, certainly has some room to grow? Room to gain belief that something miraculous can come out of a backwater town. Room to be healed under the lessons of a new Rabbi.

But Nathanael no doubt still feels the pockmarks of life’s deceptions. I posit that it is because he knows some source of shame—no matter its size—that he can truly hear Jesus’s next words. For Nathanael wants to know what gives Jesus the right to describe him as having no deceit, as an Israelite. How could this stranger know? How could he presume something so ludicrous—that I could be without deceit? Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” interprets this as Nathanael not “having a false bone in his body.” Really?

Here is the moment—don’t miss it—when Jesus gives him the “I saw you when” laser beam insight into his life. So what does it mean that Jesus saw Nathanael “under the fig tree”? Nathanael seems to know exactly.

Three possibilities:

1) It is believed that early rabbis often taught pupils under shady trees as an escape from the heat of the sun. It is possible that Jesus has seen the eager desire that Nathanael has demonstrated in faith by sitting with the teachers of Hebrew tradition learning the law, the fruit of the figs. Thereby, Jesus has seen the student Nathanael and now says “come and see” so he can commence his tutelage with Jesus out from under the tree and into the as yet unseen needs of the world.

2) In Hebrew writing, the fig tree was a sign of prosperity. In peaceful communities, the presence of the fig tree meant stability and wealth. The time and energy to cultivate and maintain the plant is a luxury. When prophets point to a time when each person may be under his own fig tree, it is a projection of hope. Perhaps Nathanael needs a vision of hope. If this Jesus can see him under a fig tree, with some anticipated vision of hope, then perhaps this roaming new teacher will usher in a new hope for the people of Israel. When Jesus identifies Nathanael as having been under the fig tree, this could be a signal to Nathanael that, by following this Jesus, he will be an usher of days of God’s reconciliation. And indeed, Jesus does tell Nathanael that he will see greater things than these—even greater than the symbol of the fig tree!

3) What is the setting of the fig tree for Nathanael? God only knows. Gospel writer John in his blessed ambiguity could lend us the belief of a broader mystery, in which case, the fig tree is any place where Nathanael is most vulnerable on his own journey. The words of expectation that Jesus places upon greeting Nathanael – “this one of no deceit” – are a blessing of forgiveness. Nathanael hears Jesus name the convicting location of the fig tree, perhaps a place of inner anguish where deceit has been lived out by a serpent’s cunning invitation.

So it was with me under the fig tree with my attempts to bury the bear. I point to this incident, not because I cannot forgive my seven-year-old self, but because it is the earliest point I can remember an intentional departure from the truth. Here was the original point of my own fall from the branches of some childhood innocence with the tasting of good and evil. And this flavor remains so much a part of my condition, that I still find myself at times at the base of the tree trying to shovel away my shame. And the slinking part of me wonders if I will be forever banished from life’s garden, cast out from the playground, and clutching at fig leaves as do Adam and Eve.

So, when I hear Jesus’ words of “come and see” I can hear all three potential meanings of Nathanael’s seeing under the fig tree and thereby can welcome them all.

1) For I too, have studied (under a tree, from an ivory tower perhaps, learning knowledge beside some biblical teachers and mentors) as a source of preparation and growth in faith. I, too, ponder the Rabbi Jesus’ teaching.

2) For I, too, have wondered about what God would have in store for my future, for the future of all. I have wondered how it is that peace and reconciliation can make its way in the midst of the turbulence we experience as a people today. And so, I love the thought of ever-creating God who sees me under the place of that hopefulness and who even prepares a brighter vision transcending what we humans can imagine.

3) For I, too, could get stuck under the fig tree of my own deception, shame, or selfishness. This could keep me from following Jesus. However, I am reminded that Jesus sees, catches me red-handed, and is still accepting. He sees Nathanael for who he truly can be—without deceit. It is this welcome that initiates the disciple’s belief: a man born of Joseph, from the unfortunate hometown of Nazareth, could be the Savior. Is the Messiah.

Are we willing to envision ourselves out from under the tree? God already has. Jesus has already prepared a way for us and we need not be ruled by what has come before. Jesus sees not only who we are but who we can be—worthy of glimpsing the great opening of the heavens just as he promises Nathanael about greater things. As for the tree, we know that he takes it on, whittled away as the cross. We are reminded, even at this juncture of Nathanael’s joy at starting the journey, that we still must contest the ongoing evils and shames of this world, within and without.

Following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, we reflect on the events of this past year and raise our questions about the directive of Christ to “come and see” beyond the shadow of the tree.

I went back and listened to a 2007 online interview I heard given by theologian James Cone. He was speaking about the connection of the cross of Christ with those have been oppressed in our nation’s history.  He describes the original sin of the United States as slavery. I have always thought of slavery as a great evil that plagues our nation, but to hear Cone describe it as America’s original sin was liberating. It provided a sense of slavery’s deep seeded shame for this country. However, his description also offered a vision of hopefulness that echoes even from Eden. Just as there is hope for each of us in our own place of shame, so there is a saving hope for we the people. God sees us under the oppressive hand of the country’s own shame. Jesus sees us at the fig tree of Ferguson…a tree under which we have been learning hard lessons. In the company of King, we can believe in our own worthiness (beyond shame) in the midst of our heartbreaking legacies. We are God’s Beloved Community.

Jesus sees us, truly sees us, as we can be. In the midst of violence, disparity, despair, discrimination and death, we see that something good -the seeds of our own healing – can come out of Nazareth. They can come out of Missouri and point us to a great way of being out from under the tree—a muddled, sometimes murderous place, where the hope of salvation is not a mere fantasy. We the children of God are capable of being redeemed. We have room to grow.

The bear circulates even now for each of us, a reminder of our fallen condition. The bear circulates on the playground as a saving sign reminding us that we are capable of being who Jesus believes we can be: disciples who emerge from the fig tree and help to share the good news of healing wherever the Rabbi leads.