Jesus 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."
Bethsaida, Cana, Nazareth: all were small country towns, little more than villages, and no doubt they had all the petty rivalries experienced in such places. “Nazareth?” said Nathanael (himself a Cana man), “can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nazareth was never mentioned in the Old Testament; how could the Messiah come from such a place? Still, he let himself be persuaded to go and meet this stranger.
The moment Nathanael met Jesus his prejudice vanished. This is normal. Prejudice thrives on ignorance and anonymity. In ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’ W.B. Yeats imagined the future years and what they might bring to his new-born child – and, more ominously, what they might take from her. He wrote of his fear that she might “lose natural kindness and maybe / The heart-revealing intimacy….” The mechanism of such loss is hatred and prejudice. “An intellectual hatred is the worst, / So let her think opinions are accursed….”
Nathanael let his prejudice be overcome. This made him different from the many who seek only to have their prejudices confirmed. Jesus had seen him in the distance, under the fig tree, and perceived that he was a man “without deceit.” For Nathanael it may have been one of those non-moments when everything is clear because it has not yet been squeezed into language. Such moments were beautifully described by Yeats (to quote him again). Whether we are among the powerful of the earth or the powerless, it is in such moments that the shape of our life is determined.
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