Fr Bob explores the story of Nathanael (identified with St. Bartholomew), and what his fig tree tells us about God.
“Before Philip came to call you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
Nathanael is the name the Fourth Gospel gives the man known to the other evangelists as Bartholomew.
Well. You are naturally asking, what was it that Nathanael was doing under the fig tree? Clearly it was a shock to Nathanael to discover that Jesus knew something about him that only he thought he knew. It brought from Nathanael the exclamation that Jesus must be the Son of God, to know such things. Why was Nathanael under the fig tree? I went to the library to find out. So I could tell you.
Fr. Gerald Vann, whose book The Eagle’s Word deserves another read, thought that Nathanael was in a secret place, minding his own business.
Professor William Barclay of the University of Glasgow thought that he was having a quiet time.
Père Lagrange the Dominican exegete gave it as his opinion that our Lord with second sight saw Nathanael going through a crisis.
Pheme Perkins has it that traditionally a fig tree is the tree under which a rabbi would sit to study Torah.
St Augustine held that a fig tree is where a rabbi would sit to teach Torah, and since the Twelve were all unlearned men, Nathanael can be the name of a rabbi but not of an apostle. Also Adam and Eve took to wearing fig leaves when they knew themselves to be naked. So, fig-uratively speaking, Nathanael too was under the shadow of death.
Archbishop Temple, whose well-loved commentary on St John’s gospel slips into one’s pocket for the train, thought that Nathanael must have been wrestling with doubt. The patriarch Jacob also wrestled, with an angel, but he was full of guile, think how he obtained Isaac’s blessing, and Jacob gained the name Israel, which means, he contends with El. So since Nathanael won his bout with doubt and came to faith in Jesus, he is an Israel – ite in whom there is no guile. So he is all the more worthy to enjoy Jacob’s dream and see angels too.
C.F.D. Moule reminds us that in the story of the bath of Susanna, her accusers were caught out when they disagreed about which tree she was under, and Jesus like Daniel is right about the tree, so this proves that he is the true and perfect Daniel come to judgement.
And Professor Marsh who wrote the Penguin Books commentary on St John, says that Jesus’ remark about the fig tree shows that Nathanael presents the picture of the genuine Israelite of the Messianic age as it had been drawn by the prophet Micah: ‘In the latter days …. Every man shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.” Thus the guileless heart of Nathanael could see what the guileful hearts of Israel’s leaders were not able to see – that Jesus, now gathering his Messianic people around him, is the true King of Israel, Israel itself, called in Old Testament terms the son of God.
And what does the doyen of Catholic exegetes Raymond Brown say, I hear some of you ask? Raymond Brown says, he doesn’t know.
I see how you sternly repress the temptation to smile.
What’s plain for all of us, no doubt, is that we may be sure that Christ our Lord was watching over us and caring about us before ever we came to know Him. That the apostles have given us great names to call him by, king of Israel and Son of God. And that if we believe, we shall see greater things indeed, we shall see heaven open to us and angels ascend and descend upon the Son of Man. We shall join the choirs of heaven in praise of God, who has visited his people and redeemed them.