Epiphany 2 Year B 2021
The philosopher Immanuel Kant famously wrote these words:
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."
The evidence that human beings can truthfully be likened to crooked timber is in plain view, whether we think of the recent disturbing events in Washington D.C. or contemplate the mendacity of politicians closer to home. And there is some wisdom in Kant’s warning, for it reminds us that utopian projects and dreams often end in bloodshed and tears because those pursuing them are all too willing to trample people under foot in pursuit of their dreams. Yet Kant’s view is not derived from Jewish and Christian thinking about humanity and today’s Gospel shows that very clearly and gives us grounds for hope.
In today’s reading Nathanael’s first response to Philip’s words about Jesus is a cynical and sceptical question:
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Nevertheless, he responds to Philip’s invitation to “Come and see”. The encounter with Jesus which ensues needs some explanation. When Jesus says “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” he isn’t praising Nathanael for his bluntness, rather he is picking up on Nathanael’s question about Nazareth. Nathanael’s cynicism about Nazareth was geographical. Nazareth was an unimportant northern town, remote from Jerusalem. It’s as though an inhabitant of Edinburgh were saying “Can anything good come out of Dingwall.” And there’s nothing in any of the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Bible to suggest that the Messiah was going to emerge from Nazareth. Nathanael’s scepticism arises out of where he thinks that Jesus is coming from.
Jesus responds with a witty remark which focuses on where Nathanael is coming from in a sense that is cultural and religious, rather than geographical:
“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
In calling Nathanael an Israelite, he is reminding him of their shared descent from Jacob; deceitful Jacob who impersonated his brother in order to trick their father and gain his blessing. The story of how he stole his brother’s birthright supports the view that human beings are hewn from crooked timber. Yet Jacob went on to experience a very disturbing and painful encounter with God and to receive a new name – Israel – a name which means “the one who struggles with God.” Jesus was reminding Nathanael that God can work with the crooked timber of humanity and make something of it. It’s unlikely that Nathanael understood that immediately. His first reaction was to ask: “Where did you come to know me?” and Jesus says:
“I saw you sitting under the fig tree before Philip called you”.
Nathanael responds to this as though it was an astonishing piece of clairvoyance, as perhaps it was. He acknowledges Jesus as “the Son of God” and “the King of Israel.” Jesus reacts to this confession of faith by steering the conversation back to the story of Jacob, now putting himself in Jacob’s place:
“Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Nathanael would have immediately understood that Jesus was referring to the vision that Jacob experienced, his dream of a ladder linking earth and heaven and the angels of God ascending and descending on it and the promises that God spoke to him in that dream. Jacob recognized the place where his dream happened as holy and renamed it Bethel:
“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Jesus is saying that the encounter with God is not about place – not about Nazareth or Bethel – but about a person, about himself. In Jesus the earthly and the heavenly meet and can be encountered. In Jesus, the crooked timber of humanity is straightened and we are made aware of our true potential, a potential only to be realized through close encounters with God of the kind that Jacob and Nathanael experienced, and to which both of them responded.
Immanuel Kant believed that human beings cannot have any knowledge of God, that we are intellectually incapable of grasping the nature of God’s reality. In a narrow sense he was right – God cannot be defined or explained using human language and categories and all attempts to do so have at best remained incomplete or at worst have projected human desires and human anger onto the divine. There was evidence of that in the recent attack on the Capitol in Washington. The violence was shocking, and the fact that at least one of the protestors was carrying a placard showing Jesus wearing a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap was deeply disturbing. God cannot be defined or explained, and God should not be recruited to the crooked purposes of fallen humanity, though that all too often happens. The good news of Epiphany is that God can be encountered in Jesus, as Nathanael encountered him, an encounter which has the potential to dissolve our cynicism and selfishness and to make something good and enduring out of the crooked timber of humanity.