Saturday, January 05, 2008

5 January
Under the Fig Tree

Readings: 1 John 3:11-21; Psalm 100:1b-2, 3, 4, 5; John 1:43-51

Our readings today remind me of scenes from two movies. In The Human Stain, a young African-American man, whose skin is fair enough to allow him to pass for a Caucasian, decides to assume the identity of a white-man. He does so because this is the only way to get ahead in a severely bigoted society. And he is willing to do this even though it requires him to sever all ties with his family. In the poignant scene where he finally reveals his plan to his mother, she responds by calling him a murderer. But why a murderer? Unlike Cain of the first reading, he hasn’t cut anybody’s throat. And yet, by choosing to deny their very existence, hasn't he, in a sense, killed every member of his family? Once he puts his plan into action, they will be as good as dead to him.

Indeed, there are many different ways to take another’s life. We can do it with a sharp knife. But we can also just as easily do it with a sharp tongue, as well as with the dull edge of willful neglect. And, as the movie shows us, we can do it also by choosing not to acknowledge the reality of another’s dignity as a human being. All this makes the message of the first reading all the more significant for us. For it presents us with only two alternatives. We can either be murderers or lovers. We can either choose to live for ourselves or we can lay down our lives for God and for others. There is no middle ground. How then to avoid the first alternative and embrace the second.

The gospel shows us the way by describing the encounter between Jesus and Nathanael. What indication do we have of Nathanael’s initial murderous tendencies? Is it not in his response to Philip? Can anything good come out of Nazareth? In one sentence, Nathanael seeks to dismiss the existence of Jesus. He is from Nazareth, and I know all about the people of Nazareth. No need to see him. But, with the help of Philip, Jesus helps Nathanael to see. The journey begins under the fig tree. But what exactly happens there?

In the movie adaptation of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, a mother is conversing with her daughter as they clear the dinner table after some guests have left. The daughter is upset because her mother seems to have been comparing her to the more attractive and successful daughter of a family friend. But the mother responds by continually repeating the words, I see you! She reassures her daughter that the latter’s kindness has not escaped her attention. She has seen how her daughter chooses the less appetizing pieces of food at the dinner table so that others can have the best. She has seen beyond appearances and found goodness by looking into her daughter’s heart. I see you…

Isn’t this also how Jesus leads Nathanael from death to life, from blindness to sight? Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree… In other words, I have chosen to look beyond what others have told me about you, beyond my own preconceived notions of who you might be, beyond even your own self-estimation. I have looked into your heart with the eyes of my own and seen your goodness. There is no duplicity in him…

The impossible journey from selfishness to love, from the taking of others’ lives to the laying down of one’s own, begins under the fig tree. It begins when we experience ourselves being seen by the Lord, being known by him for who we really are. In this way, we are given courage to see for ourselves, to witness the angels of God ascending and descending upon the reality we might at first wish to deny, upon the people whom we might at first be tempted to kill. And in seeing, we are moved to love...

Where might we find our fig tree today?


  1. My fig tree was no less than the six star St Regis Hotel in Tanglin Road, Singapore, just opened for business on new year's day this year. A very close friend's daughter held her wedding dinner there just last Saturday. I was really apprehensive about attending, not being at all comfortable in the company of the high and mighty, the shakers and movers of society. On the other hand, I value our friendship so much I didn't want to disappoint my friend. And so after much prayer and anguish, I showed up. I was proven wrong. The people at my table were ordinary folks like me. They were easy to talk to and made good company.

    Whether under the fig tree or in the ballroom of St Regis, we are so conditioned to make assumptions which are quite removed from reality. And in a society like Singapore's where distinctions are becoming more and more stark, we are often deluded into basing our relationships on what we see and like or dislike. We all know, of course, that God sees beyond appearances, into the very depth of the being.

    I pray for the grace to go beyond externals because, contrary to Fr Chris' assertion, there IS a middle ground for me; a no-man's land vacillating between 'murder' and 'loving'. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I don't but I'm always hopeful of divine grace coming to the rescue.

  2. There's probably a reason why they call it "no-man's land"...