“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
This question has always resonated with me, perhaps even shaken me a little. It’s a galling question, the sort that springs from elitism and privilege. Jesus calls his disciples - those who should be the closest to him and his ideals, those most appreciative not just of him but of the invitation - and yet the question is raised.
Narratively, we should recognize this as foreshadowing. Thomas will doubt the wounds; Judas will betray him; Peter will deny him. In that context, of course Nathanael questions him.
But what are we to make of this line of questioning?
Nathanael questions Philip, one of the newly-called. Relatively little is known about Nathanael, but he is witness to Christ’s return at the Sea of Galilee at the end of the Gospel of John, and in that sequence he is identified as being from Cana.
Like Peter and Andrew, Philip hails from Bethsaida, a fishing town on the Sea of Galilee. Cana was a relatively small village in Galilee. Both Philip and Nathanael have humble roots in small places in a rural region. Cana is even near Nazareth. But we know proximity, and even similar backgrounds, do not erase questions or doubts.
Whether driven by sincere curiosity or sarcastic derision, the question is a conversational red flag. Even if not malicious, a sincere question means Nathanael has reached adulthood doubting his own surroundings. At best, he thinks his own region is “less than.”
If the query is sarcastic, then it resounds in spite and condescension.
When I taught in Raleigh, I heard firsthand comments, often meant humorously, suggesting which areas within the city were optimum. The lofty vantage point of the state capital put its people above the rural corners, and, as its intra-state rivalry with the Queen City revealed, even Raleigh felt occasional condescension from Charlotte. Coming from our rural region, I was especially aware of dismissive comments. How often is our corner of North Carolina dismissed as not being able to produce and provide as well as the larger cities?
We instead should think of how this story turns out.
Philip’s response to Nathanael’s skepticism is resolute and immediate, telling his friend “Come and see,” for all will be answered. Rather than continue to protest, Nathanael swallows his questions and follows (first Philip, then Jesus).
After being silenced by his friend, Nathanael talks to Jesus and realizes he can also respond and listen as the Lord’s faithful servant. Both answer Christ “Here I am,” and so, too, should we. Our origins do not limit us, but that is a recurring theme in our culture and society. When doubting Nathanael asks his question, he voices doubts that resound through the years. He asks not what good can come out of Nazareth, a narrow and insulting enough question, but instead “can anything good” come from so backwards a place; that question echoes around the globe. We all have our Nazareths.
Our part of the state is often and unfortunately discounted. That frequency with which we hear “can anything good come out of northeastern NC?” poisons minds against us, and it often poisons us against ourselves and our own best interests. This sort of doubting short circuits our ability to recognize that which is good, and even great, that comes from here. Just as Jesus came from what we would now call a backwater town, we call home our rural counties and need not let their remoteness limit us.
Just as Jesus didn’t allow the Galilean district border to halt his ministry, we cannot let our own borders stop us from embracing the world for all it can be. The glories and great thoughts of God are countless, numbering more than all the grains of sand. We do have plenty of sand in this Coastal Plain, but we know God’s great gifts are found throughout all the lands, not just the big cities.
Christ called his disciples from small and rural towns. We let ourselves think far too often that the action and true headlines occur in larger places, as remote from us as we must seem to those populous areas. Jesus called his Disciples from rural, oft-forgotten areas on the geographical fringe, for they - and we - are called to help the people who exist on the societal fringe.
Like Nathanael and Philip, we are called to follow Christ, which means helping our neighbors, whether urban or rural. We connect with others and bridge the gap, shortening the distance from us to the rest of the world. It is our duty to span those bridges and help all we can. God’s love reaches all, and we can share it.
Just as the disciples called by Jesus were able to go from their forgotten homes and change the world, so too can we. We answer the call, showing the power of Christ’s all-encompassing love and sharing it throughout the world. “Can anything good come out of Bertie County?” It can, and it will. “Come and see.”
Hugh H. Davis is Director of Albemarle Regional Library and a lay reader at St. Thomas' Episcopal Church (Ahoskie) and St. Mark's (Roxobel). His interests range from Shakespeare and Milton to the Muppets and Doctor Who. He can be contacted at email@example.com.