“HOW DO YOU KNOW ME?” (Jn 1:43-51): 05 January 2008 (John Neumann, Saturday)
In 2002 Mary Zimmerman won the Tony Award for Best Director for her work on “Metamorphosis,” a play based on a number of Ovid’s fables. In one scene, Zeus and Hermes disguise themselves as ordinary peasants, and they visit a village knocking on doors to ask for a place to stay. Every house closes its door on them, and after a while, Hermes tries to convince Zeus to give up. But Zeus insists they continue and they end up before the simple cottage of Baucis and Philemon, a poor elderly couple, who–to the gods’ surprise–immediately welcome the strangers and serve them food and wine. Suspiciously, Zeus asks them if they recognize them. “Of course!” exclaims Philemon. “You are children of God!” But later Philemon notices that although he has already refilled his guests’ cups many times, the wine pitcher remains full. At this point, the scene’s several narrators declare to the audience in unison: “And then they knew.” Baucis cries out, “Mercy, mercy!” and she and Philemon fall on their knees before the gods they finally recognize.
A similar recognition happens in today’s gospel reading in what has to be the strangest–and funniest–biblical recruitment story I’ve read. When Philip invites his friend Nathaniel to meet Jesus of Nazareth, Nathaniel asks—we can imagine, with his eyebrows significantly raised: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But Nathaniel’s skepticism disappears almost the moment he meets Jesus. As soon as they are introduced, the Lord praises Nathaniel, calling him “a true child of Israel”–one, according to Jesus, without any duplicity in him. Surprised, Nathaniel asks Jesus, “How do you know me?” And the Lord tells him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you standing under the fig tree.” And that’s it! Immediately, just like that, the former skeptic recognizes Jesus as “the Son of God.”
Makes you wonder what Nathaniel was doing under the fig tree. Someone once irreverently speculated that Nathaniel was probably responding to the call of nature when Jesus caught sight of him. Hence, the embarrassment and the instant conversion!
Seriously though, I think the point is not so much what Jesus saw or what he said, but who Jesus is. The story shows us the power of the very person of Jesus and what a personal encounter with him can do. It has been said that the Lord has the power to read our hearts, so that upon meeting him, we won’t be able to help but ask, “How do you know me?” But the remarkable thing is that his answer to that question makes us know him. As in the case of Nathaniel, this question about knowing us leads to a recognition of him.
So that’s going to be the question that I’ll ask him today: “How do you know me?” And I ask him that question because today–just one day before Epiphany tomorrow–I seek to know him. I know that his answer to my question will help me know not only myself, but him as well. When he gazes at me, as he did to Nathaniel, and when he reads my heart, as only he can, I will get a better appreciation not only of myself, but also of him. And as Baucis and Philemon saw when they welcomed the gods into their home, in such privileged encounters with the divine, the wine never runs dry.
(image: “Zeus and Hermes in the hut of Baucis and Philemon” by Gerhard Jan Palthe)