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Epiphany 2

Sunday, 14 January 2024
Dr Esther Elliott

I saw you under the fig tree

Epiphany 2

Sunday 14 January 2024 Second Sunday after Epiphany Year B/2
EUCHARIST St Mary’s Cathedral. John 1:43-51

On this exact same Sunday last year, the Gospel reading came from the story that is immediately before the one we had today. Last year we heard all about the very first followers of Jesus. Jesus asks them “what are you looking for?”, they reply that they want to know where he is staying and He replies to them, “come and see”. I remember Marion preaching a very good sermon encouraging us, at the start of a new year, to consider what it was that we were looking for and what we might encounter if we accepted Jesus’ invitation to come and see. Well, it’s taken us a year to meander our way to the story after that. A whole year to get to the sequel! And I’d like to suggest that if part one was all about what it means to look and see, part two is all about what it means to be seen.

Our second half starts the day after the first half, Jesus has moved location but is still finding disciples. The story starts with a man called Philip following Jesus. Philip comes from the same town as Andrew, and Peter who followed Jesus in the first half of the story. Philip goes off to get his friend Nathanael. Now he seems to be a bit of an outlier, not quite as eager to jump straight in. And you can easily imagine Nathanael when he hears Jesus talking about him to people he probably didn’t know, getting a bit indignant and asking, “where did you get to know me?”. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” Jesus replies. Most explanations of this story add in a bit here about what Philip was doing as Jesus watched him. They assume that Philip was praying because that’s how Jesus recognised that he a good Jew, an Israelite in whom there is no guile to quote the Gospel.

Now I’m less interested in adding bits into the story than I am in exploring what’s already there. And I’ve been taught to pay very close attention to the environment in which people meet and talk and act. In particular, I know that if something is described in detail, even named in the Bible, it is in the story for a reason. So, my attention was caught by the fig tree that Jesus saw Nathanael under. And I’d like to suggest this often-overlooked character in the story is a gift that just keeps on giving when it comes to understanding what it means to be seen.

I know three main things about figs and fig trees in the Bible. Firstly, they are very important in the Jewish faith that forms the backdrop for all the writing we find in the Bible. They are one of the seven agricultural products — two grains and five fruits — considered to be so special that only the first fruits of these seven could be brought as offerings in the Temple.

Secondly, they operate as a symbol of peace and abundance. In Deuteronomy fig trees are included in the list of all of the wonderful things the promised land, the land of Canaan has. They therefore became a sign of being in a peaceful and abundant place, somewhere that people could become personally wealthy and secure. In fact, the phrase “ Judah and Israel lived securely, everyone under his vine and his fig tree” is used in 1 Kings 4 to describe what life was like under King Solomon. Approximately, 180, 200 years after Solomon’s reign the prophet Micah would pick up the phrase and use it in the same breath as talking about beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. By now, it’s a description of Yahweh’s final kingdom, a place of peace and gardening. And then, approximately, a further two hundred years later the prophet Zechariah uses the phrase again, this time as he is talking about a person, a Messiah, a branch to use his language, who will help this Kingdom come to fruition. And, in a lovely turn, the now familiar idea is expanded. It becomes “on that day (when the Kingdom comes) you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree”.

Thirdly, the fig tree has a major role in the story of Adam and Eve and the first break in humanity’s happy relationship with God. Some traditions suggest that the Tree of Knowledge that Adam and Eve were told not to go near was a fig tree. Maybe so, but it was definitely the leaves of a fig tree they used cover themselves up when they realised they were naked.
We often think about that as Adam and Eve wanting to cover up their bodies in embarrassment or shame, all very Victorian, but the Hebrew of this passage can also carry the meaning, they realised they were clever, and cunning, and vicious, obstinate, stubborn, and headstrong. So, the leaves of the fig tree act as a symbol of humans instinctively wanting to conceal and camouflage those bits of their nature. Of course, God isn’t fooled and spells out the not so good consequences to their actions. And then there’s that lovely image of God swopping out the inadequate and deficient covering Adam and Eve came up with themselves with some long-lasting clothes that God makes. Like the tender care of someone wrapping a big puffer jacket around the shoulders of a person living out in the cold with a bin liner for a coat.

Jesus tells Nathanael that he understands him because he saw him under one of these fig trees. He saw him under a tree that has huge significance for Jews, a tree that is a symbol of peace and security and what the future will look like when God is in control, and a tree whose leaves are ancient symbols of a human instinct to cover up the bad bits of our nature. Jesus sees Nathanael as someone deeply embedded in a history and in a culture. And that culture has a deep understanding that what it is looking for in life and hopes for in the future is peace, security, prosperity, and an alignment of its values with the way of God. Jesus also sees Nathanael as a human being, with all the nuance and complexity that involves, with an inbuilt desire to be close to God and to others and an inbuilt instinct to cover up and disguise parts of ourselves.

All of these things, and more besides because I’ve only just really scratched the surface of the swirl of symbols and metaphors that surround fig trees, create a picture of what it means to be seen by Jesus. Seen, accepted, included in the group of His followers. Our backgrounds, heritage, baggage, how we see things because of our culture and education – seen, and we are accepted and included. Our deep needs for security and peace, for wars and fighting and stress to end, our needs for restful and comforting people around us – seen, and we are accepted and included. Our ability to be cunning and obstinate and headstrong or anything else we think is nasty in our nature and our instinct to cover those things up – seen, and we are accepted and included. Our deep desire to be close to God even though we feel like we fail, and we don’t recognise even half of what God creates to wrap warmth and care and love around us – seen, and we are accepted and included.

One of the things the covid lockdowns did was to make smaller versions of ourselves what was seen by others. We shrank to the size of a box on a screen or to a face with just eyes, eyebrows, and a forehead. That’s what danger, the threat of danger and fear does, it shrinks what we see of people and what we allow people to see of us. 2024 is going to ask a lot of us, I think. Fear and anxiety will encourage us to choose to control even more of what people see of us and will make sure that we only see smaller versions of the people around us. And yet we are called to follow Jesus, who wasn’t led by fear, danger, or the threat of danger. Jesus who had a big, expansive idea of how to see people and what it means to be seen. “Where did you get to know me?” Nathanael asked. “I saw you under the fig tree” Jesus replied.

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