Lectionary Thoughts: John 1:43-51 and Sh*tholes
I just heard the word "shithole" used, unbleeped, on National Public Radio. We live in wondrous times. It must be especially thrilling to be a news editor these days, holding a style guide in one hand and an open Twitter feed in the other, trying to figure out how to do your job.
I've seen more than one person note that the lectionary this week seems to be trolling Donald Trump--or possibly the other way around. And sure enough, the gospel text for this week (Epiphany 2, Year B, or January 14 2018) plays with those same notions of good places and bad places that the president was using in the comments he allegedly made in a meeting yesterday. Likening places like Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa to "shitholes," the president wondered why we keep accepting immigrants from there. In case the racist meaning was still unclear, he then proposed overwhelmingly-white Norway as an example of the kind of place we should be receiving immigrants from.
"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?", Nathanael asks in this week's passage from John. This is a moment that subverts readers' expectations; we might expect, in this very early moment of good news in John, that Philip's announcement to Nathanael that he had found "him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote" might be received with joy, with curiosity, or at least with interest. But no. Nathanael's reply is basically, "what, that sh*thole?" Nothing worthwhile could come out of Nazareth. It was nowhere. It was completely not worthwhile. The people who lived there were not know for anything. Nathanael's response, we have to remember, would have had to make sense in the context of John's audience. Early readers of John probably would have nodded along with Nathanael's comment, sharing his bias against whatever Nowheresville Jesus was supposed to be from.
The implication, of course, is that Jesus himself can't be all that worthwhile if he's from a place that isn't worthwhile. That's the argument the president was making about the sh*tholes in our world: that people who come from there can't possibly be worth having. The fact that this is patently false and offensive and racist and predicated on a shockingly deficient world-view shouldn't distract us from the basic claim that the president is making: that some people are better than others. For the president, these kinds of claims seem to correlate with race (and gender, conflated with physical appearance, come to think of it). For Nathanael, it's just incredulity that there could be anything worthwhile on the other end of Philip's invitation. Of course, the next 20 chapters of John prove Nathanael wrong.
I don't think it is overstating too much to say that the fact that Jesus was a nobody from a sh*thole is the entire point of the gospel. The Christian tradition looked to Isaiah 53 to make this point: he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." Jesus could have been a prince or a king or a general or a wealthy landowner or whatever...but he was nobody from nowhere. That's the whole point. Jesus came from a sh*thole.