Under the Fig Tree – Reflection for 14 January 2018
I wish that I could sit down with John the Evangelist. I’d love to ask about the structure and symbology in his Gospel. Commentaries on this Gospel are filled with opinions, assertions, and assumptions that more often than not are completely opposed to one another. Since I can’t get the straight scoop over a cup of coffee with the author, I will instead work with an interpretation that seems useful to understand Nathaniel’s encounter with Jesus.
At first glance it seems obvious that there is more to the story than meets the eye. Some of the holes are filled in by looking at the allusions to Scripture, but some are still unclear. One suggestion is that the phrase “under the fig tree” was a euphemism for praying. If we accept this, the story becomes that Nathaniel is praying, perhaps even praying for the Messiah, when Phillip comes to say, “We have found the Messiah. Come meet him.”
When Nathaniel meets Jesus, something about the way that Jesus speaks to him makes him feel uncomfortably known, as if Jesus knows all that is in his heart. Nathaniel asks, “From where do you know me?” and Jesus responds, “I know you from your prayers.” Nathaniel responds, “You really are the Messiah, the answer to my prayers,” but Nathaniel does not yet fully understand the Messiah. Like most of his peers, he probably thinks of the Messiah in terms of a conquering king who will bring glory back to Israel. Like us, he thinks much smaller than God.
Jesus responds with a reference to Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 28:10-17). When Jacob in a dream sees angels ascending and descending from heaven, he exclaims, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Nathaniel was in store for even more than he prayed for. He would realize that Jesus was the Lord in this very place. He would come to understand that the Word had become flesh and was dwelling with him. He would see Jesus as the gate of heaven.
What an amazing day for Nathaniel. He witnessed his prayers answered, he realized how fully known he was by God in his belief and disbelief, he began to understand how much more God had in store than he could imagine, and perhaps he even recognized that the Living God loved him so much that He came to share in his life.
What happens when our prayers are truly answered? When we realize that we are fully known by God…AND fully loved?