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Why a traveling preacher from a backwater town drew so many followers

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Fr. Dan Daly, S.J. - published on 08/24/16

It was as if Jesus were looking into Nathanael’s heart and reading his whole life. “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked with amazement.

Nathanael got up from his comfortable spot in the shade and followed Philip with some reluctance. Philip was a good friend and kindhearted to a fault but a little naïve when it came to traveling preachers. Anxious to find solutions to all the problems in the world, Philip was quick to believe whatever a preacher proposed. Nathanael was more realistic. He had serious doubts that the visitor from the backwater town of Nazareth would make any real difference in the lives of people like him. Even so, since it was so important to Philip, Nathanael agreed to say “hello” to the man.

As the two men rounded a clump of trees, Nathanael spotted the teacher explaining a point to some eager listeners. Hearing them approach Jesus turned and looked at Nathanael, and a warm smile of recognition crossed his face. For a moment Nathanael wondered if he had met Jesus somewhere before, but he quickly dismissed the idea. Then Jesus addressed him as a true Israelite without any duplicity. Nathanael was stunned. This was not just some offhand remark. Somehow Jesus knew about Nathanael’s wisecrack regarding Nazareth and much more besides. It was as if Jesus were looking into Nathanael’s heart and reading his whole life. “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked with amazement.

Nathanael became a follower of Jesus that day and never looked back. Although St. John is the only gospel writer to list Nathanael as an apostle, scholars have concluded that Bartholomew, a frequent companion of Philip in the other gospels, is the same person. Jesus appreciated Nathanael’s willingness to give his honest opinion, even when it was not popular. Having a person like that would be helpful not only to Jesus but also to the other disciples who would be making many important decisions after Jesus had ascended into heaven.

Somehow Jesus knew a great deal about Nathanael even before they were introduced. Jesus had remarkable insight into many different people, including the woman drawing water at the well in Samaria and the short tax collector named Zacchaeus. Jesus cared enough to be attentive to the people he encountered. No doubt that helps explain why Jesus drew such a large group of followers. They recognized that Jesus knew and cared about them.

The story of Nathanael reminds us that forthrightness can be a wonderful gift in our interactions with one another and with God. Thinking one thing and saying another rarely provides much benefit. When we are part of a group that is confronted with a question or problem, an honest exchange of ideas will likely lead to the best solution. Honestly telling God what is on our mind, even when we are doubtful or discouraged, will provide an opportunity for our relationship with God to grow.

The call of Nathanael also reminds us that Jesus knows us well. He has been following our lives with interest for quite some time. Jesus knows our history and our hopes for the future. And if some day Jesus looks at us like he looked at Nathanael, with a smile on his face and some marvelous plan in mind, we can be sure that a wonderful opportunity awaits!

For the Mass readings for August 24, click here. To learn more about the painting of the Nathanael under the fig tree, click here.

Author’s note:  St. Ignatius Loyola encouraged us to use our imagination in contemplating scenes from the Gospels so that we might draw greater fruit from them. In reflecting on the call of Nathanael I use my imagination to fill in some of the details of the story.


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