As far as saints go, we don't know much about Nathanael. We know that he was one of the Twelve, he is credited with bringing Christianity to Armenia, where he apparently converted the king Polymius, and was either beheaded or flayed alive for his troubles.
What most people remember about Nathanael (as he is not mentioned often or in great prominence in the rest of the New Testament) is his question from today's Gospel passage (Luke 1:43-51), "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"
His casual dismissal of all people who heralded from that rather insignificant burg is almost comedic. Not quite racist, not quite bigoted, not quite jingoist, he refuses to believe that the Messiah could possible come from such a humble place.
This alone should give us pause: how do we estimate a person's worth or wisdom? Is it based on their career, their income, their pedigree, their education? For most of us, we probably gauge a persons' worth based on a combination of these things.
But Jesus had a humble career, income, pedigree (his apparent blood relation to King David is arguable) and education. Furthermore, as Nathanael points out, he came from a town which was neither an important center of commerce, politics, religion philosophy, nor was it of any strategic or military value.
So how ought we to value the input of other people? Should we disregard someone because they have little formal education? Should we ignore someone because they are not wealthy? Should we belittle someone because they come from the wrong side of the tracks?
Jesus' answer would be fairly obvious.
The other point that this Gospel passage seems to want to make is about the fig tree. The fig tree under which Natanael was supposedly sitting prior to meeting Jesus is never actually mentioned in the Gospel passage, yet apparently he was indeed sitting under a fig tree.
What could this represent? I have a couple of theories, incumbent upon the symbolism of the "shadow".
First, a shadow can be a comfortable place, a place where we seek refuge from the elements, a place of solace. Metaphorically though, a we rarely are growing when we are in a place of comfort. More often, comfort zones are places of inertia and stagnation. Perhaps Jesus called Nathanael out of that literal place of comfort, and perhaps we are being called out of our metaphorical places of comfort.
The second possibility is that the "shadow" represents the shadow of the Law. The Pharisees followed the Law to the letter, but did not do it with love in their hearts for God or neighbour. Rather, they used the Law to judge, to criticize, to indict. While Jesus did not eschew the Law per se, he did point out that the fundamental reason to follow any law should be because we love God and/or our neighbor.
Apparently, rabbis used to teach the Law while sitting under the shade of a tree, so it has been suggested that perhaps the point of this passage is to indicate to us that Nathanael transcened the litigiousness of the Law and came to understand Jesus' point that we follow the Law out of love.
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