Jesus saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. I wonder if the writer of John meant that literally or figuratively. The Jews have always said that the Torah is a tree of knowledge. Those who studied Torah were said to be “sitting under the fig tree.” That expression, “sitting under the fig tree” was also sometimes used if you were studying under a rabbi’s instruction and taking in the “sweet fruit of his knowledge.” And, of course, there were actual large fig trees in Judea which spread out large canopies of shade. Sitting in the shade of a fig tree was often where someone would go to pray or to meditate on scripture. So I wonder which it was. Did Jesus see Nathanael discussing Torah with a rabbi who was his teacher? Did Jesus see him praying or meditating? However it was, Jesus saw him. Really saw him. And in seeing him, Jesus knew him.
“Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” said Jesus as Nathanael came walking toward him. Nathanael was one of those people, apparently, who didn’t bother to buffer his opinions. He didn’t mince words. When Philip told him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael’s response was, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Most of us learn somewhere along the way how to be a little less than one hundred percent candid in sharing our opinions about things, even things we think are really important, even when it’s our job to speak. We learn pretty early on that plainly speaking the truth we see often puts us in direct opposition to what someone else sees. “Know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” said Jesus. That’s true. But one of the things it may set you free from is those people who don’t like your truth.
In our monthly collegium meeting on Thursday, some of my colleagues were sharing how frustrated they are with parishioners who have taken them to task for being too political in their sermons recently, and especially past week after the storming of the Capitol building. Knowing them as I do, I’m sure they weren’t saying anything overtly political simply for the sake of being political. I’m certain they were doing their best to proclaim the Way of Jesus and the love of Christ in the context of the events that have been keeping all our lives in turmoil. I’m also sure they were trying to be faithful to their ordination vows which call us to speak the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to speak for the poor, and to speak for justice. But maybe they spoke a little too plainly. Like Nathanael.
I have a friend, a classmate from seminary, who left the ministry a few years ago because he refused to bend or soften the words of Jesus to avoid confronting his congregation’s extreme political stance. He went back to his old job of writing code as a computer programmer because, in his words, “The computer doesn’t ever pretend that the code is saying something it doesn’t say.”
We want to hear the truth. We want to know the truth. But we want it to be in our favor.
Unvarnished truth makes us uneasy when it doesn’t jibe with what we already think and say what we want it to say. We want to be on the side of truth, but far too many people would bend the truth rather than bend themselves to make that happen. Over these last several years, in fact, we have seen people living in a flat-out alternate reality, inventing their own version of truth because they don’t like the facts in front of them and can’t find a way to bend them that’s convincing to everybody else.
Here’s the thing about speaking the truth you see. You can be wrong. Nathanael was wrong. Something good did come out of Nazareth. But Nathanael was wise enough not to cling to his original opinion when he saw that he was wrong. He was open to having his mind changed. He was willing to get in the discussion. And when he came to know the truth, the good thing that came out of Nazareth, he changed his life to follow that truth and live that truth.
How often, though, do we shy away from having the discussion about how we see things because we’re afraid we might not agree on what’s right or because we want to avoid the tension?
But as Dr. King pointed out, there is such a thing as creative tension, a tension that helps us separate truth from myth and helps us see a way forward.
This weekend we observe the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote of his frustration with people who sat on the sidelines of the Civil Rights struggle. Nice people who acknowledged that his cause was right. Nice church people who acknowledged that truth and justice and the cause of Christ were on his side. But still they sat on the sidelines and quibbled about whether or not he was doing things the right way.
“I must confess” he wrote, “that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Dr. King was writing to people who knew he was speaking truth and calling them to be true to the faith they professed, but who didn’t want to risk standing up publicly against a culture that denied the truth of equality, a culture that had lived for a very long time with the lies and structures of racism and inequality.
I think in these times God is calling us to be true to the truth we have professed. True to the faith we have professed. I think God is calling us to not just be “not racist,” but to be anti-racist. I think God is calling us not simply not to lie, but to be anti-lie, to turn our backs on false facts and false realities. To speak truth plainly.
And when we find that the way we see the world doesn’t quite match what others see, then let’s go sit under the fig tree together and talk about it. Let’s learn to really see each other the way Jesus saw Nathanael. Let’s learn to discern the truth together. In the presence of the one who is the truth, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.