Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fig Trees

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree, before Philip called you.” (John 1:47-48)

When Nathanael is introduced to us he comes across as a skeptic and a snob. Both the skepticism and the snobbery are captured in a question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip had announced that Jesus of Nazareth was the one Moses wrote about in the Law. Nathanael wasn’t buying it, not for a minute.

But before long Nathanael’s question is replaced by a bold declaration: “Rabbi, you are the son of God; you are the King of Israel” (John 1:49). The transition from the question to the declaration seems abrupt. Nathanael has changed his tune, and we can’t be blamed for wondering why. What happened?

It’s the fig tree. Between Nathanael’s mocking question and his astonished declaration there is the incident of the fig tree. Jesus has made an insightful assessment of Nathanael’s character – an Israelite in whom there is nothing false. No duplicity, a straight shooter. What you see is what you get.

“How do you know this?” Nathanael asks.

“I saw you when you were under the fig tree,” Jesus explains.

John’s telling of this story gives us no clue as to what Nathanael was doing under the fig tree. It probably isn’t important. What we note is that Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree – not in synagogue, not at the temple, not reading the torah, not doing an act of charity, not teaching or leading a committee meeting.

Under the fig tree: a place to nap, a place to fix a sandal strap, a place to relax with friends, a place to escape the heat. Who knows exactly what Jesus saw? You can’t get much more ordinary and everyday than a fig tree. And yet, the fig tree stands at the center of Nathanael’s conversion.


Every life is marked by a fig tree, several perhaps. The fig tree is a nondescript everyday place, the site of common and familiar practices. Jesus sees you stuck in traffic. Jesus takes note of you sorting through mail at your kitchen counter. Jesus sees you on the phone, surfing the internet, meeting a friend for coffee, getting an oil change.

Knowing that Jesus sees you under the fig tree can change where and how you see Jesus. Suddenly everything matters. The most laborious of errands becomes a sacred mission. The conversation you dreaded becomes an opportunity for witness in a word kindly spoken.

This can be unnerving. We’re hopeful that Jesus takes note of our worship attendance and our monthly turn feeding homeless people at the shelter. Yes, that’s where we want to be seen. But Jesus sees more than that. He knows where the fig trees are, those familiar plain places we traverse every day. Jesus sees us there. He sees us there when we don’t see him.

So where are you fig trees? Where will you be today, just as you were yesterday and will be again tomorrow? Jesus sees you in the everyday. How will that change how you see Jesus?

Remind us today, O Lord, that every place matters to you. Grant to us a sense of your presence in every fig tree that marks our hours and days. Make every place sacred, and help us to see you just as you see us – in the everyday. Amen.

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