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2nd Sunday of Epiphany

John 1:43-51:  43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip 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."

46Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" 48Nathanael asked him, "Where did you come to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you."

49Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" 50Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." 51And 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."

Hearing the Call, (1 Samuel) John 1: 43-51, January 15, 2012

In today’s text, when Jesus is walking around Galilee, looking for disciples to drop everything and follow him, he’s looking for a particular kind of person.  

At first it is unclear if Jesus has found such a person in Nathanael. When Nathanael hears Jesus described as the “son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1:45), he sneers and asks the question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (1:46).

Nazareth, as a rival to his own hometown of Cana (see commentary below), is no match. It’s a small town without power or prestige, and there probably weren’t more than 2,000 residents at the time. Nazareth isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament, or in any of the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus.

On top of this, it’s located in Galilee, which comes from the Hebrew word meaning “boundary” or “territory.” Jesus is not coming from an impressive urban center, like Jerusalem; instead, he’s coming from the middle of nowhere.

But, Jesus sees something special in this candid chap from Cana: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (1:47). Jesus gives him credit for stepping forward in faith, even though Nathanael has expressed doubt and skepticism. Jesus pays him this compliment because Nathanael is at least open; he’s at the very least going to check it out — see what Jesus is all about.

Jesus loves it, and loves him. This willingness to step forward in faith is a commendable quality. Nathanael, had this intangible quality that immediately recommended him to Jesus: He had faith.

He’s perceptive: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!” says Nathanael, after Jesus divines his identity, having spotted him under a fig tree. “You are the King of Israel!” (1:49).

And Jesus answers, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these” (1:50). Jesus invites Nathanael to continue to follow him in faith, and he promises that he will see even more amazing things, including the opening of heaven, and the ascending and descending of the angels of God (1:51).

GUILE: A quick word study

"No deceit," which is the wording in the New Revised Standard Version, is an accurate translation of the underlying Greek word. However, we prefer the rendering of the older Revised Standard Version: "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile." (The KJV and some other versions use the "no guile" rendering as well.)

Perhaps we prefer "guile" because even the word has a dark sound to it. A person with guile sounds like someone you'd want to avoid. Indeed, the word "guile" has its roots in the Old English word wigle, which denotes witchcraft and sorcery. That word was picked up by French speakers where it became guille, which came back into Middle English as guile.


In modern English, the word has lost the witchcraft connotation, but it retains the sense of deceitfulness, or of "snare." (Indeed, the Greek word John used that's translated as deceit or guile is dolos, which was derived from an even older Greek word meaning "decoy.")

But Nathanael, Jesus declares on their first meeting, is a true Israelite, without guile -- he's not crafty, not deceptive and not out to take advantage of others. The Message paraphrases Jesus' statement as "There's a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body."


So if Nathanael was without guile, it means that he makes no claim about himself that he does not strive to live up to. He does not wear a mask in public to hide his true feelings. He gives honest answers. He's sincere and upright. He doesn't look for a loophole; he's not angling for some ethical wigle room.

It was indeed a great compliment Jesus gave him.


JACOB: A compliment, yes, but there's irony here

Because Nathanael has no guile, Jesus calls him a "true Israelite." There's a certain irony in that, for the person in the Bible who was originally given the name Israel, and from whom the people of Israel took their name, was Jacob.


He was the one who, as a young man, took advantage of his hungry twin brother Esau and persuaded him to hand over his birthright for a bowl of stew. He's the one who later tricked his father into giving him the blessing meant for Esau.


He's the one who later fled from his father-in-law's house after deceiving him about his intentions (Genesis 31:20). In fact, even his name Jacob means "He supplants." (And supplanting is defined as "usurping the place of another, often by underhanded tactics.")

Yet after Jacob wrestles with a divine figure, God blesses Jacob in the form of a new name, Israel (which means, "one who strives with God"). It's not clear that the new name given to Jacob results in a character change, however. Even later that day, after a peaceful reunion with Esau, Jacob deceives him as well, dissembling about where he intends to travel next (Genesis 33:12-14).

 Jesus' comment about Nathanael's being a true Israelite, however, indicates that however Jacob/Israel behaved, God's intention for the people of Israel is that they be without guile -- people of integrity. So Jesus' "no-guile" remark makes Nathanael a model for the kind of character Jesus' followers should embody and display.

That's reinforced by one more allusion to Jacob which Jesus makes in his conversation with Nathanael. After Nathanael declares his belief that Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus tells him that he will see "heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

That references the dream Jacob had of angels, ascending and descending, connecting heaven and Earth (Genesis 28:10-17). In the original event, the place where Jacob had the dream, Bethel, came to be considered holy, but Jesus is saying that the angels will ascend and descend upon Him as they did on Bethel.

The lesson? This reminds us that for Christians, Jesus himself is the holy place. As God dwelt at Bethel, so he dwells in Jesus and wherever Jesus is present.

So what Jesus is saying is that honest character, like that of Nathanael, is to be one mark of the people of the new Israel -- those who respond to the call of God in Christ Jesus, and that, of course, includes us.

What must I do to be without wigle?

Well then, what does it mean for us to be people without wigle? Perhaps we can see it better by thinking about what it does not mean.

To be without guile does not mean to be pushovers or naively trusting of all comers. Jesus is not calling for us to be dog-simple or easy targets for scam artists and identity thieves. When Jesus sent his disciples out to proclaim the gospel in the towns of Palestine, he told them, "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16).

Likewise, to be without guile does not mean to deny that we are complex individuals who are sometimes driven by motives that we're not even aware of or shaped by experiences and scars from earlier times in our lives. Being without guile is not a call to deny our complexity, but to live by our highest values.

What's more, to be without guile doesn't mean that we have no social skills. Often social skills are taken to assume that we lie in relatively innocent dealings with others; we tell so-called white lies. We say, "No, that doesn't look like a toupee at all" when we can spot it a hundred feet away, or "The cookies were great," when we didn't like them or "What an adorable baby!" when we're thinking, "Too bad she looks like her father!"

Actually, it's possible to be sociable and friendly without lying, though it takes a bit more thought.

More importantly, to be without guile means to live with our hearts open to truth, and not run from it. It means that when we become aware of unflattering truth about ourselves, we make the necessary changes truth requires of us. We don't bend facts to fit some false idea of ourselves.

We're truthful with others and truthful with ourselves. And we admit it when we have made a mistake or a misstep. (Note how Nathanael quickly abandoned his prejudicial statement about Jesus -- "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" -- once Jesus spoke with him. One commentator describes Nathanael as "a good man, hampered by prejudice, but quite willing to be enlightened.")

Guileless people are pleasant people

Have you ever lived or worked around someone who is sneaky? How did it make you feel to be around that person? Probably not good. Fr. Roy Cimagala, a priest in the Philippines, writing about this Scripture reading on Nathanael, says that people without guile are ...

. . . humble enough to accept things as they are, never bending them to make the pieces fit [their] own ideas. Rather, the contrary. That's why you immediately feel good every time you meet such persons. They always exude such welcome and wholesome aura about themselves in spite of their imperfections. They contribute in making society more at peace and in harmony.

 Each of us is invited to make the move that Nathanael did, in spite of our reservations, our doubts, our skepticism. We’re a lot like this disciple in our questions and concerns — in fact Nathanael can be a stand-in for each of us.

Did you know that Nathanael makes this brief appearance on the discipleship scene, and then disappears completely — except for one brief mention in chapter 21?  So Nathanael is a kind of everyman ... or everywoman. A model for every one of us.

But Jesus calls us, too, to join him, and walk in Nathanael’s footsteps. To do that, you’ll need to take a step toward Jesus. This kind of faith-walk is a journey into an uncertain future, but it is one that trusts Jesus to be leading us in the right direction.

So let’s follow in the footsteps of Nathanael, and make a faith-step toward Jesus.





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