The Feast of St. Bartholomew
The Gospel reading at Mass today is the story of the conversion of Nathanael in John 1:45-51. It may at first seem odd to us that, on the feast of the apostle Bartholomew, we would read of the conversion of Nathanael. Why not hear the conversion of the apostle?
In fact, St. Bartholomew is Nathanael! Bartholomew is his last name, while Nathanael is his first name. Thus, the conversion of Nathanael is indeed the conversion of Bartholomew. Don’t be too disappointed if you didn’t realize this, however, because even the great St. Augustine had difficulty in understanding this point!
The greatest work of theology, after the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, is often considered to be the Tractates on the Gospel of St. John by St. Augustine. In this collection of sermons, St. Augustine comments on the whole of the fourth Gospel in great detail – sometimes even considering the sacred text word for word. However, as brilliant as St. Augustine was, he occasionally misses important aspects of the Gospel account. Nevertheless, as we will soon see, even when the Doctor of Grace is wrong about some particular point, he is ingeniously right in interpretation of the passage as a whole – in this respect he foreshadows St. Thomas Aquinas who is more brilliant in his error than all the other doctors have ever been in their best moments (consider, for example, his teaching on the Immaculate Conception; though he denies the doctrine, he provides the Church with nearly all the theoretical framework that she would eventually use in the proclamation of the dogma).
Tractate 7 on John 1:35-51
In his seventh tractate on St. John’s Gospel, St. Augustine approaches the story of the conversion of Nathanael with two false pre-conceptions:
1) St. Augustine does not believe Nathanael to be St. Bartholomew, and thus, he is forced to explain why Nathanael’s conversion story is given if he is not an apostle.
2) Nathanael’s words in John 1:46 “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” are ambiguous in the Latin, and so, St. Augustine understands this to be an affirmative statement rather than a suspicious question: “Something good can come from Nazareth!” Thus, St. Augustine thinks that Nathanael is a brilliant scholar of the Law who had ingeniously discerned that the Messiah would come from Nazareth (no-one else had figured this out).
Now, we consider St. Augustine’s commentary. St. Augustine sees Nathanael as a brilliant scholar of the Law and as an Israelite “in whom there is no guile (duplicity)”. First, St. Augustine affirms that Nathanael was certainly conceived in original sin and had committed at least some actual sin. What then does our Savior mean when he says that Nathanael is without guile? This means that Nathanael did not try to present himself as something other than he truly was – he was a sinner, but he admitted his sin to the Lord and, in his heart, awaited the coming of the Messiah to wash him clean of all sin. Nathanael is contrite and humble before God, therefore he is a true Israelite without any duplicity or guile.
The Fig Tree
“Before Philip called you, I saw you sitting under the fig tree.” These words of Christ elicit a response of faith from Nathanael. But what is their meaning? They are shrouded in mystery to us, for we cannot easily perceive the deeper sense of this passage.
St. Augustine points out that the fig tree is closely associated with sin. After the fall, Adam and Eve clothed themselves with fig leaves (conscious of their sin). In the Gospel, Christ curses the fig tree, for not producing fruit – a sign of the sinful nation of Israel. Here too, the fig tree is a sign of sin and of the consciousness of man’s fallen nature. Thus, our Lord is telling Nathanael, before Phillip called you to me, you were in sin and under the shadow of death.
Nathanael is amazed, because Jesus has showed him that he can read hearts and that he knows of Nathanael’s honesty and openness to God – that he admits his sinfulness and is looking forward to the redemption which would come through the Messiah. Thus, Nathanael is amazed and believes that Christ is truly the Messiah and the Son of God.
You will see greater things
When Nathanael makes this proclamation of faith in Christ, our Savior only tells him, “you shall see greater things than these.” The Lord responds in this way because Nathanael had only recognized Christ as a human Messiah, but had not yet come to see his divinity. This would be revealed upon the Cross when the angels of God would ascend and descend upon the Son of Man. It is also through the Cross that the forgiveness of all sins would come – Nathanael would finally fully rise up from beneath the fig tree and would stand in the light of the sons of God!
St. Augustine is right, even when he is wrong
Throughout his interpretation of this passage, St. Augustine attempts to account for the fact that Nathanael is not an apostle (St. Augustine does not realize that Nathanael is Bartholomew). First, he points out that Nathanael is a brilliant scholar of the Law, since he was able to discern that the Messiah would come from Nazareth. But the Lord chose not the wise and learned, but the simple to be his apostles (most of them were fishermen). However, if we recall that St. Augustine had misunderstood the sacred text (reading “Something good can come from Nazareth!” instead of “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”), it becomes clear that Nathanael was probably just as humble and lowly and uneducated as the other apostles. If we read his comment as a suspicious question, there is no reason to presume that Nathanael was a great scholar. Rather, he is, much like the other apostles, slow to learn and very simple.
Therefore, even though St. Augustine works very hard to show why Nathanael is not an apostle; he actually ends up showing us precisely why Nathanael Bartholomew was a good candidate for being an apostle!
1) The apostles are lowly and generally uneducated. Nathanael too was lowly and had not perceived the secret truths hidden in the Old Testament regarding the city of the Messiah.
2) The apostles are humble sinners in need of the Lord’s mercy. Nathanael too was humble before God and, without duplicity, admitted his sin before the Lord awaiting the forgiveness of sins which was to come through the Messiah.
3) St. Augustine stands out from among all the others Fathers, being the only one to have understood the mystical signification of the fig tree. While all the others are perplexed as to what the proper interpretation might be, St. Augustine recognizes the symbolism of sin and the need for redemption.
Even in his error, St. Augustine is the most brilliant of the Fathers of the Church!
St. Bartholomew and St. Augustine, Pray for us!