As a fully-paid up member of Generation X, my teenage years were full of angst and world-weariness. Even at my tender age, I was already wise to all the tricks of The Man and as discerning as any middle-class white kid from south Northamptonshire can be. When I became a Christian this cynicism transitioned quite nicely into my new faith, as it seemed to me that there were no shortage of fruitcakes and nutters in church leadership. Some of them shouldn’t even have been let near heavy machinery, let alone given serious pastoral responsibility. Oh yes, I knew what was what. No-one would get one over me. My cynicism was so finely tuned that it was practically prophetic. I would watch my brothers and sisters work themselves up into a frenzy over the latest spiritual manifestation or teaching and I would remain calm, level-headed and quite unmoved. Unfortunately cynicism can be quite indiscriminate at times, and I would still be unmoved even when it was God trying to do the moving. Thankfully I manage my cynicism much more responsibly these days. Some days it even borders on discernment.
At the end of the first chapter of John’s gospel we find Philip excitedly relating to his brother that he’s just met the Messiah, and Nathanael’s response is so world-weary and sarcastic that I’m forced to conclude that he was actually British.
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
It’s a classic response. Humourous and dismissive without actually addressing the issue. I recognise a fellow cynic when I see one.
The thing is, very rarely are people born cynical. Most of us spring forth into this world, wide-eyed and excited, hoping against hope for good things to come our way. But they don’t, and cynicism is just one of many defence mechanisms that we evolve in order to protect ourselves. The secret is this, that many cynics are just disappointed idealists. We once believed, but were let down, and to avoid hurt we have chosen to never believe again. Thus another cynic is born.
In the years leading up to Jesus’ birth there were Messiahs cropping up on a semi-regular basis. It was typical of the Israelites, chaffing under the unjust Roman yoke. Their freedom in the land was so bound up in their identity as God’s chosen people that it should be no surprise that there were plenty of people willing to jump on whatever revolutionary bandwagon came along. Nathanael would, no doubt, have known about the one called Athronges. He claimed to be the Messiah and, get this, he was a shepherd. Many Jews would have just loved that Davidic parallel. The Romans took a dim view of such behaviour and, without fail, every Messianic pretender (Athronges included) would have ended up dead or imprisoned, along with his followers.
“Not another Messiah! Philip, why do you have to be so gullible? You’re always falling for things like this…”
But if a cynic is just a disappointed idealist then maybe it’s not Philip who’s the gullible one? Maybe Nathanael’s harsh reply is just his wounded heart talking? Maybe he once believed? Maybe it was once him, rushing into the desert after Simon, or Athronges, or some other deluded trickster, hoping that it would lead to the freedom that a true Israelite desired. Well, never again! Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. But Philip is no fool himself. He knows that there’s no point arguing or trying to persuade his brother. He gives the only reply that will work on a cynic:
“Come and see for yourself.”
And Jesus sees him approaching. He appraises the young man. He smiles.
“Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”
What a strange thing to say of a cynic. What is false if not Nathanael’s bitter, dismissive reply to his brother? But maybe it’s true. Maybe behind the sarcasm Jesus sees the heart of a optimist; one who dreams of what might be. A true believer.
“How do you know me?” Nathanael says, suspicion making him revert to type.
“I saw you while you were still under the fig-tree before Philip called you.”
I don’t see it myself, but there’s obviously something in this phrase. Some secret that only God and Nathanael share. Whatever it is, it pushes all of Nathanael’s buttons. He drops everything and gives such an overblown response that it would be funny if it weren’t so perfect.
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”
From nought to sixty in under a second. It’s almost as if he’s been waiting for this moment his whole life. The cynicism, it seems, was just a mask to keep false prophets from the door while he was waiting for the real thing to come along. And here he is, coming from a place from where nothing good comes, and Nathanael is his, mind and soul. A cynic may no longer believe, but he still wants to.
“Jesus, I’m your man. For the rest of my life, I’m your man.”
Here’s the thing. While a cynic will keep everything and everyone at arms length, if you can somehow break through his defences and give him a taste of the real thing he will flip-flop quicker than a politician. “Come and see for yourself.”
Watch out for those cynics. They are not far from the Kingdom of God. A little taste of the real thing, and before you know it you’ve got a true believer whose passion will burn everyone and everything that they come into contact with.