The Gospel reading from today’s Morning Office contains a line that struck me anew this morning: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” It’s one of the most famous lines in the Gospels not spoken by Jesus. And it’s a line that has much to say to our present moment.
The first thing that struck me today was that it’s probably one of the most ancient examples we have of what we now call intersectionality. Here we have Nathanael, a member of a marginalized people on the margins of a vast empire, making fun of a place and a people even more marginalized than his own. We don’t know about Nathanael’s motivations for this, or if he’s even aware of the irony at play in his dismissal of Nazareth as a good-for-nothing backwater. If he is aware, he’s playing the classic “I don’t care if I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel as long as I’m not the bottom” trope. If he’s not aware, then it’s a window into how intersectionality works, with its complicated web of privilege and marginalization: Nathanael, aware only of the ways he is marginalized is unaware of the way he’s marginalizing others.
While these are both important and timely considerations, of course the greater point to Nathanael’s rhetorical question is that it has an unexpected answer: Yes, Something good can and does come from Nazareth. And moreover, this ‘yes’ tells us something important and beautiful about the character of God.
What human beings reject and despise, God chooses and raises up. God trusts those society rejects with the holy wisdom needed to confront the principalities and powers and proclaim the Kingdom of God. This isn’t a meaningless detail in the story, but reveals the heart of God.
Despite our (not always unjustified) image of the God of the Bible as powerful and violent, this preference for the lowly underdog is a consistent theme from the beginning to the end of the Scriptures. The salvation story begins with God calling Abraham, a man of little consequence in his native Ur — and even at the peak of his power, Abraham was little more than a wealthy but childless nomad. As the story of Abraham’s family continues, it is consistently the younger son whom God calls out for special blessing. Later, the family’s descendants become slaves in Egypt and again it is this marginalized people that God chooses over and against the wealthy empire of Egypt and the city states of Canaan. Later still, Israel’s great hero David is the youngest son in his family. Even at its height, ancient Israel was a petty kingdom played as a pawn in the empire-building games of the superpowers around them. After the Exile, Israel continued to be subject to foreign powers, whether Persian, Greek, or Roman. This consistent divine preference for the outsider reaches its climax in Jesus, who, as Nathanael’s comment reminded me this morning, came not only from the backward corner of the Roman Empire, but came into a scandal-soaked and humble family, in a small, backwater town in the wrong part of that backward corner of the Empire. Paul summarized this divine characteristic nicely when he wrote to the church in Corinth:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are… (1 Cor 1.27f).
This divine intimacy with what is foolish, weak, low, and despised came to its fulfillment on the cross, when Jesus died betrayed, abandoned, falsely convicted as a traitor and ritually unclean — like so many thousands of others before and after who have spoken truth to power and paid the ultimate price for it. But of course, out of Jesus’ suffering and death, God brought — and brings — life, vindicating God’s Suffering Servant with the gift of new life.
None of this is new. But thanks to Nathanael, it was nice to be reminded of it today, especially as we go through life in a world where the powerful are more powerful than ever, and where truth is despised and toyed with. And after reflecting on all this today, I feel called to three specific actions:
- Not to give up hope when I feel powerless, forgotten, written off, or pushed aside;
- To reflect on who I may be writing off because of my prejudices, and to repent; and
- To hear and amplify the voices of marginalized people in my areas of privilege, and speak tirelessly truth to the powers that be where I am myself marginalized or powerless.
These actions are hard: to have the perspective and humility to recognize where our ears are stopped and to open them up with legitimate care for what inconvenient truths we may need to hear, to use what voice we do have to amplify others instead of ourselves, and to speak loudly where we are voiceless. But they’re important. And the Good News is that we are not alone in this. In all this and more, God is with us.