Cabinet of Colloquial Curiosities, I: Zenobia

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February 28, 2021

Cabinet of Colloquial Curiosities, I: Zenobia

Passage: John 1:43–51

The inspiration for our Lenten Sermon Series at Kenilworth Union comes from Paul Anthony Jones’ The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times (2020), where  this British author compiles 51 mostly extinct English words that for various reasons faded from our common vocabulary over the centuries, but which might nonetheless speak a word of peace to us in chaotic times if we raise them from the dead.

Jesus Calls Philip and Nathanael

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”  And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Nathanael is just a bit player in the snappy narrative of Jesus’ inimitable life. You probably don’t know who he is or what he does. John is the only Gospel to mention him, and that only twice, in John’s first and last chapters.

But I just adore this story, because there’s a sense in which Nathanael’s story is a terse précis of the entire Gospel message. When we see how Jesus redeems Nathanael, we understand how he saves the entire world. “For God so loved the world...”

I want to use three words to describe Nathanael: blunt, smart, and fragile. The first two descriptors come straight from the Bible, and the third is a guess based on my own personal reading of the story.

Nathanael is blunt. When Philip—an early disciple; in fact, the third disciple to enlist in Jesus’ little band of merry men–—when Philip tells his friend Nathanael “We have found the Messiah,” and Nathanael naturally asks “Who is it?”, Philip responds “Jesus of Nazareth.” Nathanael famously sneers “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael is blunt and he is superior. More about that later. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” indeed!

So Nathanael is blunt, and he is smart. When Jesus meets Nathanael, he pays him a huge compliment: “Behold an Israelite in whom there is no guile!” And Nathanael naturally asks “How do you know me?” And Jesus says “I saw you sitting under the fig tree.”

In the cramped and tiny quarters of ancient Palestinian homes, you see, the fig tree in your courtyard was your study. It was where you pored over your books and memorized the Torah. Saying “I saw you sitting under the fig tree was like saying “I saw you at the library”; “I saw you at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when the Mars Rover touched down”; “I saw you at the Fermilab Particle Accelerator”; “I saw you in the chemistry lab”; “I saw you at the brain surgeon conference”.

So that’s what we know about Nathanael from the pages of the Bible: blunt and smart. But like many blunt, smart people, Nathanael might be a little fragile. He might have a Superiority/Inferiority Complex. On the outside Nathanael is all bluster and bravado: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of a tiny rustic village of shopkeeps and farmers, population 400?” But that’s just the thing: Nathanael himself is from Cana, another tiny rustic village about four miles up the donkey path from Nazareth. In other words, Nathanael can’t believe anything worthwhile could ever come from a place like his own hometown, including, obviously, Nathanael himself.

Many blunt, smart people are all bluster and bravado and superior on the outside, but all fragile, insecure, and inferior on the inside. The philosopher Alain de Botton says, “There is terror behind haughtiness. It takes a punishing impression of our own inferiority to leave others feeling that they aren't good enough for us.”[1]

Most smart people don’t do this. Smart people with healthy self-esteem don’t do this. Did you know I studied next door to Albert Einstein in Princeton? Well, not really. He died 30 years before I got there, but Dr. Einstein lived just down Mercer Street from the Seminary.

To this day, the neighbors still love to tell the story about the eight-year-old girl Mercer Street girl who would knock on Dr. Einstein’s front door for help with her math homework. When she couldn’t solve a problem, she would apologize to him that she hadn’t yet mastered mathematics, and the Professor would just say, “Never apologize for being confused about math, Adelaide. I have way more trouble with math than you do.”[2]  Right? E = mc2 and all that? Way more trouble than 4x4=16. By the way, did you notice how I tried to puff myself up by telling you I studied next door to Albert Einstein even though I didn’t? Be warned: there is terror behind the haughtiness.

In his novel, The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene says of a minor character, “Pride wavered in his voice like a plant with shallow roots.”[3] I love that image: Some blunt and smart people waver inside like plants with shallow roots.

More powerful, accomplished, polished people than we would ever guess are so unsure on the inside. Do you know about The Imposter Syndrome, which is especially prominent among accomplished women? Psychologists have been doing these studies especially with women for 40 years and find that so many bright women with earned degrees, academic achievement, high salaries, and professional success feel like imposters. Someone like this doesn’t think she earned her success, she doesn’t deserve all that success, it was all a mistake, she just got lucky, somehow long ago she managed to scam the Admissions Department at Northwestern into acceptance, or to hoodwink the Managing Director William Blair who hired her at 22, and any day now she’ll be unmasked as the pretender she really is.

I call it The Cinderella Syndrome. Psychologists put the Cinderella legend to different uses, but the way I think about it, Cinderella is anxious that she’ll be found out for who she really is underneath it all. Not a ravishing, bejeweled princess with glass slippers, an impossibly elegant designer gown, and horse-drawn carriage with footmen, but a barefoot cinder girl covered in rags and chimney soot. And it’s always five minutes till midnight.

Paul Anthony Jones says that the antidote to The Cinderella Syndrome is The Zenobia Complex. Zenobia was the extremely capable queen of the flourishing but smallish empire of Syrian Palmyra in the third century. Nobody expected great things from Zenobia. She was only someone’s wife, but when she inherited the throne of Palmyra at the death of her husband the King, to everyone’s complete surprise and against all expectation, she turned the flourishing but smallish empire of Palmyra into a superpower stretching across a great swath of the Ancient Near East from Egypt in the south to Turkey in the north.

Zenobia was modest and unassuming but also benevolent and intelligent, and eventually the English language adopted her name as a cipher for any powerful, courageous, unstoppable woman.[4] We don’t use it anymore, but maybe we should raise it from the dead.

A lot depends on whether we see ourselves as Cinderella or Zenobia. More of us than we’ll ever guess mask our inner insecurities with outer swagger and bombast. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” sneers Nathanael. Jesus is not offended. He just says gently, generously, “Behold an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” In other words, “Nathanael, I can see that you always tell the truth. With you, what we see is what we get. No fraud, no pretense, no guile, just the facts, ma’am.”

And when Nathanael realizes that Jesus is determined to see not his faults and insecurities but only what’s good, what’s virtuous, but mostly hidden, his bluster instantly vanishes, and he says “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!” From sneer to doxology in four short verses.

How Jesus redeems Nathanael is how Jesus redeems the rest of us. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. Jesus expects more of us than we expect of ourselves. To him we are not Cinderella but Zenobia. And when we realize that we can reach up toward and live into his higher expectations for us.

I hope a bunch of you have been watching Henry Louis Gates’ documentary about the Black Church on PBS: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song.  According to Dr. Gates, the Black Church was absolutely integral, absolutely crucial, to the survival and eventual flourishing of enslaved Americans, way, way more than anything else in their experience.

In those tiny praise huts, they insisted on seeing themselves not as the world saw them, but as God saw them: God’s very own children. In those tiny praise huts, they scribed an alternative narrative to the story they heard on the plantation six days a week.

On the plantation, they were told they were nothing but beasts of burden.

In the American Constitution, they were told they were worth 3/5ths of a white person.

In the cotton fields, they were treated like chattel.

At the Charleston slave auction, they were bought and sold as property.

In those little praise huts, they treated each other like royalty.

At those raucous worship services, they sang, they prayed, they preached the implacable, everlasting truth that they were children of God and cherished by the Deity as precious and loved till the last of all their days and beyond.

According to Henry Louis Gates, this is what literally kept them alive. One scholar on the PBS show said that those African American spirituals were at least as important as Union guns in getting them to January 1, 1863, when they could declaim “Free at Last.”

We are saved, we are redeemed, we reach the full stature of our genuine, God-given humanity when we see ourselves as Jesus sees us: Israelites in whom there is no guile.

In the words of Milan Kundera, “all our faults are redeemed by love’s magic eyes.”[5]  Love’s MAGIC eyes.

[1]Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety (New York: Pantheon, 2004), p. 80.

[2]Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 439–440.

[3]Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (New York: Viking, 1982, originally published 1940), p. 8.

[4]Paul Anthony Jones, The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times (London: Elliott and Thompson Limited, 2020), pp. 199-204.

[5]Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (New York: Knopf, 1980), 122.