John 1:43-51 – Second Sunday after Epiphany – for January 18, 2014
Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?” (John 1:46)
Like the majority of Jesus’ disciples, Nathanael barely received a nod in the gospels. Unlike most of them, Nathanael delivered one of the most memorable questions about Jesus.
But first, another disciple named Philip—who could’ve been Nathanael’s co-worker or neighbor or third cousin or boyhood best friend or maybe even his sister’s husband’s brother’s boss—told Nathanael about a swell fellow named Jesus. Part of Philip’s explanation included Jesus’ hometown: Nazareth.
According to the fourth Gospel, Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”
No one knows how Philip knew Nathanael. Their relationship either didn’t matter or was a blank slate to the writer of John. Indeed, the ignorance about the disciples’ various relationships prior to following Jesus appears inconsequential to any of the gospels’ authors. It’s what comes after, right?
As with Nathanael and Philip’s relationship, John’s Gospel remained ambiguous about the tone of Nathanael’s query. In the sparse retelling of Jesus’ ministry chronicled in the four traditional gospels, the ancient and modern believers weren’t overloaded with clues about the emotional reactions of the disciples.
What did Nathanael really mean by his question? How tempting to add a singular word to verse 46.
Nathanael smugly responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”
Or, how about . . .
Nathanael angrily responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”
Or, how about . . .
Nathanael wistfully responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”
Any halfway decent writer or English teacher would gleefully tell you I’ve created bad sentences with my choice of words. Adverbs—which include those notorious words ending in “ly”—are often unnecessary. Smugly, angrily, wistfully, and scads of like-minded adverbs clutter sentences in mediocre writing. Most writers have heard ad nauseam the advice: show, don’t tell. Which is to say, a writer should reveal the character’s intentions by giving her or him actions that expose what she or he is thinking and feeling. Don’t tell the reader Nathanael was smug or angry; instead give him a gesture or posture or reaction that shows Nathanael to the reader. Telling doesn’t build a fictional (or real) character, and doesn’t help a reader sense that the written description mirrored reality.
And yet, with all due respect to writing rules, wouldn’t an adverb about Nathanael’s attitude be a nice and easy-schmeasy to add bonus? Why not unleash the adverbs?
What if Nathanael were joking? Was Nazareth universally known as a dump? Didn’t the first century Roman authorities consider all of Palestine a dump, and one of the worst places to serve the empire? Were Nathanael’s words a humorous confirmation that even the locals considered certain towns—Nazareth, of course—as laughable and avoidable? Which wouldn’t surprise me! After all, I’m a resident of the “armpit of America!” In December of 2014, Fresno State’s football team beat the University of Hawaii. When the game ended, a Hawaiian sports announcer called Fresno an “armpit.” He later apologized, but I suspect quite a few folks laughed along with him (even some in Fresno’s area code). Fresno has been the butt of many jokes.
Ha. Ha. Ha. Nathanael was such the jokester!
Or had Nathanael found and lost the love of his life on the mean streets of Nazareth? Could he have been wistful about bittersweet memories? Was there that “special” someone he’d wooed . . . and then later gave him the proverbial cold shoulder? Had Nazareth once been the answer to his romantic prayers, the place where his life would turn around, but sadly, abruptly, and unexpectedly (ah, those tell-tale adverbs!), his future was ruined and his heart ravaged when his beloved chose the arms of another?
Sigh. Poor, lovelorn Nathanael?
But the gospels weren’t written to tell us about Nathanael.
They were written to challenge believers, known as you and me, to show what it means to follow Jesus after meeting him. I write these words near the beginning of a new year. While I’m not one to make resolutions, I value fresh starts and new insights. In January, I recall a prior year—with my failures and foolishness, with my lost opportunities and accumulated guilt—and seek to keep learning, sharing love, and risking faith. Like Nathanael, I may have experienced humor or anger or wistfulness, but something new is forever calling me. Something new, which comes from the turning of the heart and not the turning of a calendar’s page, continually enters my life.
Our lively faith doesn’t grow by telling what has happened before, but by showing—through our actions for Christ’s sake—what happens next.
(Image from here.)