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Hope in Name (John 1:35-51)


“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11 

This week we read from John 1:35-51.  In these verses Jesus calls his first disciples.  Two of John's disciples who witness the praise that John heaped on Jesus asked if they could follow him, and Jesus agreed to take them on as disciples.  Then one of the two, Andrew, recruits his brother Simon Peter.  They all traveled to Galilee and Jesus called Philip to follow him, and he did.  Philip tried to recruit his friend Nathanael, but Nathanael objected with a statement that verges on racism and lands squarely in classism.  He said "Nothing good can come from Nazareth".  In Nathanael's mind, Nazareth was a poor rural town and all of the people that lived there were nobodies.  Philip encouraged him to at least come and see for himself, and Nathanael agreed.  When Jesus saw Nathanael coming he called out "Here is a real Israelite with no deceit in him!".  Nathanael asked "How do you know me?", and Jesus told him that he had seen him under the fig tree.  Nathanael is so impressed that he proclaims Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, and the King of Israel.  Nathanael is the first to do this, but Jesus laughs and tells him that he was convinced with such a small sign, but promised he would see much more to confirm his statement.  

This strange encounter is easy to pass over without seeing the depth of what is happening.  In order to really understand what Jesus is doing we have to discover a little more about Nathanael.  Nathanael is not mentioned as one of the twelve in any of the other gospels, despite all twelve disciples being listed.  By process of elimination we can determine that Bartholomew, who is never mentioned in John, is another name for Nathanael.  Bartholomew is a Greek name that means "son of Ptolemy".  Nathanael is a Hebrew name that means "Gift from God".  

Most people called Nathanael by the name Bartholomew alone, which is somewhat strange because at the time you would usually call someone by a name followed by their surname.  It would be something like (name) son of (mother or father's name),  like Joshua, son of Nun.  In this case it would be Nathanael Bartholomew or translated it would be: Nathanael, son of Ptolemy.  This is not unheard of though.  When you wanted to put someone in their place in the social hierarchy, you might call them by their surname only.  We can see this in Mark 10:26 when the disciples encounter a blind beggar named Bartimaeus.  Bar mean son, so his name was Son of Timaeus, nobody bothered to learn his name.  We see this again in Mark 6:3 when they were trying to put Jesus down by calling him just the "son of Mary".   

I remember seeing similar behavior when I worked for a children's home.  We had a school right across the street.  Many of the children would complain to me that the kids at the school called them "home kids".  They looked down on them, they were less than, and they didn't bother to learn their names.  Sometimes stuff like this becomes internalized too.  I had a friend in high school that had been called Booger since elementary school because of a scar under his nose.  By the time I met him, he introduced himself that way.  Eventually I got his name out of him, but it took a long while.  When I talk to people from that time in my life, I am surprised by how many people never bothered to learn his name, and they don't know who I am talking about when I use it.  If you ever encounter such labels, dig a little deeper and find out their real name, you may be the only one that does.  John was the only disciple that bothered to put Nathanael's real name in the gospel.  

So far we have learned a couple of really important things.  Let's recap:   

1.) Since Nathanael is a Hebrew name and Bartholomew was a name of Greek lineage, we can determine that he was not a full blooded Israelite.  He was either half Israelite or adopted into an Israelite family.

2.) There was something shameful about his lineage that people used "Son of Ptolemy" to remind him of his place in the social hierarchy.  This would indicate that he was either adopted, as stated previously, or that he was an illegitimate child in some way.  

So when Nathanael says "Nothing good comes out of Nazareth, he is engaging in the same sort of classism that he has been the victim of his entire life.  Hurt people hurt people. Nathanael internalized the name Bartholomew and the oppressive elitist logic that called him that.  

When Jesus says "Now there is a true Israelite!"  he is cutting right to the heart of what Nathanael needed to hear.  Jesus was countering the narrative of Nathanael's internal dialogue.  The whole world was telling Nathanael that he was not legitimate, reminding him that he was just the son of Ptolemy, but Jesus tells him that he is.  After a lifetime of being picked on, he replied defensively "how do you know me?".  

This is where Jesus blows him out of the water by saying "I knew you under the fig tree".  We don't know exactly what this means, but we can make some guesses.  Nathanael must have kept whatever happened under the fig tree a secret, it was important, and it was connected to his image of being legitimate.  What if Nathanael had been abandoned as a baby and left under a fig tree?  If he was a Greek baby found by Hebrew parents then the name "gift from God" would make a lot of sense.  Son of Ptolemy would then be a generalized Greek name given to him to remind him that he was not a "true Jewish man".   We can't know this, but it does fit.   

I love how this story illustrates that Jesus cuts right to the heart of whatever doubts we have in ourselves, and he tells us what we need to hear in order to hope again.  What is it that you need to hear today?

God, speak to us.  Tell us what you see in us.  You once called a scared, wishy-washy, impulsive man - "Rock", giving him a new identity, who you saw him to be.  You called an old childless woman "Princess" when you told her that she would be a mother to many nations.  You called a manipulative frightened man "God Wrestler".  Lord, give us the name that will speak to our fears, give us a vision and hope for our future.  Teach us to always look for a person's real name and their real nature, and never settle for the labels that oppress them or us.  Amen.


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