“Quite A Compliment”

January 18, 2015
Jonathan Rumburg
John 1:43-51

When Jesus saw Nathanael walking toward him, he says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

That’s quite a compliment Jesus pays Nathanael. Something anyone would love to hear Jesus say to them—to have Jesus see such in them. After all, it’s not something that could be said about everyone, and not even about every Christian.

“No deceit” is the wording in the New Revised Standard Version, and it is an accurate translation of the original Greek word. However, the translation from the Revised Standard Version is a little more interesting: “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile.”

That’s not a word we use much anymore, but I like it here because the word seems to have a murky overtone to it. A person with guile sounds like someone you’d want to avoid.

But Nathanael, Jesus declares, is a true Israelite, without guile—meaning he’s not crafty, not deceptive and not out to take advantage of others.

The Message version of the Bible 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 wiggle room.

It was indeed quite a compliment Jesus gave him.

We all should be so fortunately, and faithful, to have such said about us which makes Nathanael a faithful model to emulate when striving to be a disciple of Christ.

But there are some underlying traits that need to be addressed first, if we are to receive such a compliment from Jesus—for when we take the time to unpack them, we will begin to see an even clearer and deeper perspective of Nathanael and this compliment he receives from Jesus.

 

Move 1

While there is a compliment here from Jesus, there is a bit of irony within it as well.

Nathanael has no guile; therefore, Jesus calls him a “true Israelite” which is where we find the irony because 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.

Yet after Jacob wrestles with God at Peniel, God blesses Jacob in the form of a new name, Israel, which means, “one who strives with God.”

What this shows is that if we want to be those who are faithful to God, if we want to be those who receive such a compliment from Jesus, then behaviors must be called into question, attitudes must be put in check—and if need be, then we must change our ways.

For such to happen, there is a process one must follow, which involves, as we see in Jacob, struggle—perhaps even struggle with God.

What we also must do, in this process, is that we must be open to our skepticism being not only challenged, but dissuaded as well.

And that is what happened with Nathanael.

Jesus saw in Nathanael a person without deceit, without guile—but he was still a skeptic.

And because he was, he doubted Jesus.

But Nathanael didn’t let his doubt keep him from making sure that Jesus wasn’t really the one they had been waiting for.

In spite of his skepticism, he listened to Philip who simple said, “Come and see.”

And by doing so, he was opening himself up to a possibility. And it was that faithful act that led him to Jesus.

 

Move 2

When Jesus went to Galilee, after his time at the Jordan where he had called Peter and Andrew to join him, he added to his band by inviting Philip, who happened to be from the same town as Peter and Andrew, to join them.

After Jesus invited Philip to join him as a disciple, Philip knew he had to share the news with Nathaniel, who might have been a brother or a friend

So Philip told Nathaniel the good news, telling him, we have found the one the Scriptures talk about.  He is Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.

Philip is excited.  He’s ready to join up.  He’s ready to spread the news, and he wants Nathanael to join up too. But though Nathanael is one who is without deceit, without guile, it does not mean that he is not skeptical.

Perhaps Nathaniel has heard this kind of news before, and it’s just too good to be true. Or maybe he has been burnt before by people who were telling him, “This time it’s different.”

Whatever the case of Nathanael, the skepticism seems to stem from Jesus’ hometown.

Nathanael and Philip come from Bethsaida, along the Sea of Galilee.  Nathaniel, like many people are inclined to do, isn’t always impressed by people from rival communities.  Apparently he’s not a big booster of Nazareth—which prompts the “how can anything good come out of Nazareth” comment—think of it like the whole Akron U. Kent State rivalry.

As a result, suddenly, we have what appears to be a conflict of personalities woven within Nathanael, this inspirer, this model of faith.

 

On the one had we have Nathanael who is seen by Jesus as one who holds the high virtue of being without deceit, without guile. He’s not shady, and is one to be emulated.

But couple it with what comes before, and suddenly we see one who doubts the Messiah, doubts Jesus. And that’s not much of a compliment. Or is it? Maybe Nathanael can still be seen as one to emulate—as one without guile, but also as one who still has doubts.

 

Move 3

As a community Nazareth was nothing special—just a small village lying near the never mentioned capitol of Galilee, Sepphoris.  There was nothing in Scripture that connected it with messianic expectations.

That is to say, then, that surely one should be looking to someone from a place more significant than Nazareth to be the redeemer of Israel.

We don’t expect great things to come from small insignificant communities.

Nathaniel expresses the same skepticism that many of us have applied to this story.

But Philip isn’t deterred by Nathaniel’s less than enthusiastic embrace of his message.  He just says, “Come and see.”  Let your eyes and ears determine whether or not I’m right about this man.

Which is what Nathanael did. Even though he was a skeptic, he went and saw. He opened his mind and his heart to the possibility that this time, something might just be different. And different it was.

*******

Nathaniel may have come with Philip reluctantly, but his encounter with Jesus would be mind-altering.

Jesus gets his attention with that compliment about him being an Israelite without deceit, but Nathaniel’s response oozes with his skepticism:  “Where did you get to know me?”  How do you know I’m an honest man who tells the truth?

To this inquisition, Jesus just answers straightforwardly:  “I saw you under a fig tree.”  I saw you talking with Philip a long way off.

From here we know the rest of the story. Nathanael’s skepticism is taken away, and he follows Jesus, becoming one of his twelve disciples.

He was skeptical, but he was open to being challenged and even dissuaded.

 

Move 4

Nathanael went through a faithful process—one that lead him to a grand and life changing encounter with Jesus.

He shows us that to be without guile means that we don’t have to let others walk over us, that we don’t have to be taken advantage of, nor do we have to be pushovers.

But he also shows us that we are to live with our hearts open to truth, and not run from it.

He shows us that when we become aware of unflattering truth about ourselves, we make the necessary changes that truth requires of us.

 

We don’t bend facts to fit some false idea of ourselves or others. We’re truthful with others and truthful with ourselves.

And we admit it when we have made a mistake or a misstep—Nathanael quickly abandoned his prejudicial statement about Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” once Jesus spoke with him.

*******

Father Roy Cimagala, a writer and priest in the Philippines, describes Nathanael as “a good man, hampered by skeptical prejudice, but quite willing to be enlightened.”

I’d say that is yet another quite a compliment about Nathanael.

 

Conclusion

Nathaniel came to Jesus as a skeptic.

But Jesus saw in Nathanael a person without deceit, without guile, and he told him so.

And as a result of this encounter, Nathanael followed Jesus as a disciple, for even if he didn’t understand it all, he knew that he had found the one he was looking for.

But even more than that, he had been found by Jesus.

*******

God’s intention for the people of God is that they be people without guile, that they be people of integrity, that they be people of honest character, that they be people who are open to new possibilities—like that of Nathanael.

So maybe the compliment that we should hope to hear, and strive to hear from Jesus, is not so much, “Here is truly one in who there is no deceit—no guile!”

But rather, maybe it should be, “Here is truly one who is like my beloved Nathanael.”

For truly, that would be quite a compliment for a disciple of Christ. Amen.

 

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