Nazareth and Ponca City: Lessons from the Outside

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

That’s one of the most famous lines of the Gospels, spoken by a disciple, Nathanael, about whom we know very little. For comparison, we know as much about him as we know about our own St. James the Less. Which is to say, barely anything.

These very minor characters in the Gospels often get put together, or conflated, in Christian tradition--I think just to have more to say about them. So it is with Nathanael of today’s passage. By the late 2nd century he was said to be the same person as Bartholomew, another rather obscure disciple in the Gospels. And then, in the middle ages someone decided to put him together with St. James the Less--yes, Nathanael, Bartholomew, and James the Less were once all the same person. And don’t ask me how they got to that. 

It gets really interesting when you put together all the different ways these three men were said to have been martyred: James with either a saw or a fuller’s (laundry) club, Bartholomew by either flaying, or beheading, or both, and Nathanael tied in a sack and thrown into the sea. That’d be a terrible death for one person! Any case, I take comfort in knowing we have scant evidence for any of this.

Nathanael appears two times, and only in John of the four Gospels: Here, where Phillip invites him to follow Jesus, and he does; and after the resurrection, where Jesus appears to Nathanael and the other disciples as they’re out fishing on the sea of Galilee. 

But of the very few things he says and does (that we know of), he gave us this great line, in response to his friend Phillip suggesting he, Nathael, meet Jesus of Nazareth: Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

One of the beautiful things about Jesus’ story is that he doesn’t come from power, or an important place. People who do come from the big cities or places everyone knows can be every bit as small-minded as those who don’t. I complain a lot about how much of my extended family is now all the way out in Kansas, and Missouri--which might as well be Galilee to most New Yorkers. When my kids were little, Inigo (my son) said to the checkout person at a diner we went to in Ponca City, Kansas, “We’re flying back to America tomorrow!” And I thought, what have I done?

But seriously, I’m happy to take my kids to Kansas every year, where they can see people living their meaningful lives even if sometimes their choices, and opinions about things, look different from ours. Don’t dismiss Nazareth. Or Galilee. Or Wichita. Or Kansas. Or the Midwest. Or (fill in whatever place you’re inclined to look down on). We’re all children of God wherever we’re from. 

The Biblical record shows that God, more often than not, chooses for his work people from obscure, out of the way places. Moses didn’t meet God in all his years as prince of Egypt, but only after he’d become an exile in backwater Midian. David was plucked up out of rural Bethlehem. Hosea, the far northern reaches beyond even Galilee. I love this line from the journalist David Halberstam: “The further you get from power, the closer you get to the truth.” You could call that a through line of Scripture. Don’t dismiss Nazareth. Don’t buy into the world’s narrative of where and who is important. God can make important people anywhere.

Now the funny thing is, Nathanael himself was hardly cosmopolitan. In his second appearance at the end of John’s Gospel he’s called Nathanael of Cana. It’s only then we learn he comes from a little town not too far from Nazareth. So what you have really in this passage is not someone from the big city looking down on the country folk, but a small town kid deriding the next small town over. Springfield against Shelbyville. (For those who watch the Simpsons.)

We’re good at finding ways to sort and rank. By city, country, town, state, lifestyle, income, class, race, gender, skin tone -- there’s no end to all the ways we put ourselves above (or below) the people around us, even if it’s in the smallest, most granular ways. All these distinctions being of course completely meaningless to God. And therefore, completely meaningless.

One of my favorite sentiments of Dr. King’s (whom we of course celebrate tomorrow) is one he would return to a lot, in numerous sermons and speeches, but it’s best known from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The antidote to this instinct to divide and differentiate is to remember our interdependence. He wrote: “In a real sense all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

Nathanael would learn that lesson from his teacher and Lord pretty quickly. Already by the end of their first encounter in today’s reading. But it all begins with being open-minded to what others have to offer. “Come and see,” Phillip told Nathanael. And he did. He saw in Jesus a teacher, an example of kindness, and ultimately, his Lord and Savior. Even if he was from Nazareth. Amen.