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The Politics of Vision—John 1:43-51 (Mark Davis)

15-01-18 - Nathanael Under the Fig Tree

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46 Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48 Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49 Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50 Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51 And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

I have a friend who, as a genuine attempt at witnessing his faith to others, wears a lapel pin to work that reads, “Try God.” I know what he intends by it and he means well. However, there is something about that lapel pin that elicits in me a vision of an indecisive shopper, holding up one garment after another while looking in the mirror, wishing this garment had that garment’s color, or that garment had this garment’s fabric, and ultimately not truly liking any of them, but the price is right and the time is getting on and … all of the things that I hate about shopping. That image, curiously, leaves God hanging on the rack to be welcomed or scorned depending on one’s taste.

I have similar misgivings about the text at hand from John’s gospel, specifically with respect to the way that the phrase “come and see” has been lifted out of the story as a slogan for evangelism. Again, the intent is honorable. However, whether we are wearing a “Try God” lapel pin or using “come and see” as a slogan, troubling questions arise: What are we saying about God? Is God like a garment, hanging on display, subject to our choosing? What are we saying about the human capacity to see, to understand, to judge? Are we even capable of looking at God, trying God on, or deciding if God fits our criteria? Is the Messiah an exhibition at which one comes to gawk and make judgments? The incipient Pelagianism behind the lapel pin and the slogan assumes that—however active God may be in other ways—the salvific moment rests on our power of vision. It is up to us to “see”—in both the visual and the comprehension sense—then we are able to decide and choose. It is a view of humanity that resonates quite well with us when we have bought into the myth of the market, where something’s worth lies solely in the eyes of the beholder.

What a strange twist, then, when Jesus says to Nathanael: “Before Philip called you … I saw you.” Up until this moment, Nathanael’s story is a marketer’s dream. Philip had found Nathanael and his evangel was “We have found the Messiah.” Nathanael is now in the position of power, to question, to doubt, to press Philip for convincing proof. In response to Nathanael’s skepticism Philip replies, “Come and see,” an invitation akin to offering a ‘money back guarantee’ or a “Don’t take my word for it, try it on for yourself!” Nathanael now approaches Jesus as one who is in the position of power to judge, to test, to evaluate whether this one whom Philip has found is indeed the Messiah.

The whole equation changes when Jesus says, “Before Philip called you … I saw you.” Before Philip sees he is seen; before he knows he is known; before he chooses he is chosen. The God made known through this Messiah is not like a garment hanging passively on a rack or a circus animal for whose performance the barker says, “Come and see!” The God made known in this Messiah is the God whose power of vision comes first. That was the whole point of the old, musty Reformed doctrine of predestination. It is not that humans have no free will, no capacity to see, no power to evaluate, judge, or choose. It is, rather, that human will has been contextualized, human capacity has been circumscribed, and the human power of vision has been dethroned as the ultimate power of the universe. When Nathanael hears, “Before Philip called you … I saw you,” the arrogance of approaching faith through the myth of the market is exposed. It is as challenging to the apologist trying to “prove” faith by rational argument as it is for the critic trying to disprove faith by rational arguments.

For those of us who have bought into the anthropology and theology of the market, Jesus’ words to Philip effect a political upheaval that has implications far beyond the question of personal salvation. Once our power of vision is dethroned, everything is overturned. Some things have value, even if we treat them like offal; some are worthless, even if we would choose to kill for them; some things are necessary, even if we would not buy into them in a million years. Our estimation of utility is not the final arbiter of value; the customer is not always right; and what something costs may have nothing to do with what it is worth. All of these assumptions have been built on the myth that our power of vision is ultimate. To that assumption, the Messiah reveals a God who says, “Before you see … I saw you.”

Again, Jesus’ words to Nathanael do not imply that we have no power of vision whatsoever. Of course we are able to see, to evaluate, or to choose. The invitation to “Come and see,” or elsewhere to “Taste and see,” is still a genuine invitation. It is just that our power of vision is a secondary power that is exercised best when we remember that before we see, we have already been seen. And that humbling awareness is the beginning of faithful politics.

(3) Comments

  1. After Jesus says he saw Nathanael under the fig tree, Nathanael’s suspicions disappear and he confesses Jesus as rabbi, son of God, and king of Israel (where son of God refers to the king of Israel, as in Ps. 2, for example). It seems Nathanael now sees clearly. But Jesus goes on to say that he will see greater things than these. So Nathanael’s vision is still short-sighted, seeing only a Jewish rabbi and Messiah. Jesus goes on to say that Nathanael (and the other disciples) will see greater things than these in the future; for Jesus is above all the heavenly Son of Man who came to earth and will return to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on him. The politics of this goes back to Dan. 7:13-14, where one like a Son of Man comes with the clouds of heaven, and is given an eternal kingdom that will include those from all peoples and nations. Thus in Jn. 3:13 Jesus speaks again of the Son of Man who descended from heaven, and who will be lifted up (back to heaven, via the cross); whoever (in the world) is believing in(to) him will have eternal life; for God so loved the world (3:14-16; see also 12:23-33).

  2. Mark,

    While I have cearly bought into the “market” perspective, I was not really thinking about it.
    Your reflection, gives me something that upsets my assumptions and reminds my that I am in God’s context, not the other way around. Thanks.

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