Faith Formation Seminar, Bishop’s House, Aberdeen, 9 May 2015[The passage is read: John 15:1-17].
This concludes our series on the Parables of Jesus.
Is it, though, a parable? Yes, in the broad sense. Something natural is being used to illustrate something supernatural; a comparison is being drawn. And so, among others, both St John Chrysostom and Pope Benedict XVI use the word ‘parable’ here.
A first stage in the exploration of this passage is to set it in context.
It belongs within the wider frame of chs. 13 to 17 of the Gospel of John, i.e. our Lord’s Farewell Discourse to the disciples. It is therefore set (traditionally) in the Upper Room, at night, after Jesus has instituted the Eucharist (according to the Synoptic Gospels) and has washed the disciples’ feet (according to John). Jesus is about to ‘go away’, to ‘pass from this world to the Father’. Judas has already left the room to betray him. The ‘prince of this world’ is coming for him. For the Gospel of John, Jesus is leaving in a sense both single and double: by the one ‘passing’ of his death and ascension.
The disciples are troubled, sad, bewildered. They are losing their Master and Friend. They face an uncertain future. Their hearts and minds are full of loss, separation, abandonment.
Throughout the discourse, Jesus is encouraging them to re-frame their understanding of events, to change their perspective. He wants them to go beyond the immediate, below the surface, to pass the other side of their emotions. He is asking them to make their own interior Passover.
The parable of the vine comes in the middle of this discourse. It is arguably its heart.
It is helpful to look at the passage has a whole. It falls in two parts: vv. 1-11, 12-17. The return to the idea of bearing fruit towards the end holds the whole together. It unfolds like a succession of waves breaking on the shore. On the one hand, there’s repetition; on the other a slight variation each time.
The key phrase is: ‘I am the vine and you are the branches.’
The key message: we will still be together. Indeed we will still be closer than ever, in a new and deeper relationship. The image suggests a “mystical” union between Christ and the disciples.
This image of the Vine and the branches can be set beside others in the New Testament. Christ and believers form one body, of which Christ is head and each of us a member (St Paul). The Church is a Temple, of which Christ is the foundation and we the living stones joined to him (St Peter). He is the Shepherd and we his flock, each of us a sheep; he knows us and we know him (St John). Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is his Bride, so that ‘whoever is joined to Christ is one spirit with him’ (St Paul / 1 Cor 6:7).
What is in view in all of these is the mystery of grace, of communion.
Each image has its own power, casts its own light. We will explore that of the Vine, with its vinedresser, its branches, its fruit.
Returning to the context: Jesus is unfolding here the inner meaning and demands of the Eucharist. We can imagine the disciples as just having made their first communion. ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood, dwells / abides / remains in me and I in him’, i.e. is a living branch of the Vine.
The communion chant of the 5th Sunday of Easter is ‘I am the true vine and you are the branches, says the Lord. Whoever remains in me and I in him, bears fruit in plenty, alleluia’. This is sung during or immediately after the moment of receiving Holy Communion. [We listened to a version of this].
The passage begins, translating the Greek literally: ‘I am the vine the true’. The word for ‘vine’ and for ‘true’ both begin with the letter alpha. There’s alliteration here, and solemnity. The emphasis falls on ‘the vine’, mentioned immediately after ‘I am’ and then followed by the adjective. ‘The vine’ is the centre of the phrase.
Why a ‘vine’? And what does ‘true’ mean?
1) To answer 2nd question first. ‘True’ an important word in Gospel of John: ‘I am the true bread… I am the way, the truth and the life.’ Jesus promised to send ‘the Spirit of truth’. He tells Pilate that he came into the world to bear witness to the truth. But what does ‘truth / true’ mean? We can say: that which comes from God, that which is revealed or disclosed by him, and therefore real and reliable; it’s that which is definitive, that which fulfils what goes before. It’s the opposite of what’s false or temporary. “Fragments of meaning, obscurely hinted at by other vines, are gathered up and made explicit by him” (C. K. Barrett).
So Jesus is saying ‘I am the vine planted by God, the real vine, durable, lasting, the vine to which all other vines point.’ The real is what belongs to the world of Christ and of the resurrection: he is the true vine because truly risen.
2) Why a ‘vine’? What echoes would that have in the disciples?
There are many, from the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Wisdom literature.
a) In the book of Numbers, when the people are in the desert, Moses sends 12 men to spy out the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. It’s the beginning of the grape harvest. As a sign of its fruitfulness they bring back a branch with a single cluster of grapes, which two of them carry on a pole. This has become a logo for Israeli tourism. Here ‘the fruit of the vine’ is a symbol of the richness and fertility of the land, of the blessing of God. Israel’s ideal was to enter this land where each man would sit under his own vine or fig tree. The vine is the most prized of plants. Vines and their produce of grapes and wine are things of beauty and delight and abundance, highpoints of creation, places where creation becomes gratuitous joy. ‘Shall I leave my wine, which cheers gods and men, and go to sway over the trees?’ says the vine (Judges 9:13). The feast of Tabernacles, the last and greatest and most exuberant of Israel’s annual feasts, was a feast of the olive and grape harvest. Wine belongs to the rituals of the Sabbath, of Passover and of marriage feasts. And Jesus’s first ‘sign’ was to change water into wine, the sign that the messianic wedding feast was on its way.
b) Then the vineyard or vine (both) became symbols of Israel herself, God’s people.
There are many references to this, e.g. for the vineyard Is 5:7, ‘For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting.’ Is 27: 2-3: ‘A pleasant vineyard, sing of it! I, the Lord, am its keeper; every moment I water it. Lest any one harm it, I guard it night and day.’
For the vine, Ps 80:8-18:
“You transplanted a vine from Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it,
and it took root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches.
Its branches reached as far as the Sea,
its shoots as far as the River.
Why have you broken down its walls
so that all who pass by pick its grapes?
Boars from the forest ravage it,
and insects from the fields feed on it.
Return to us, God Almighty!
Look down from heaven and see!
Watch over this vine,
the root your right hand has planted,
the son you have raised up for yourself.
Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire;
at your rebuke your people perish.
Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,
the son of man you have raised up for yourself.
Then we will not turn away from you;
revive us, and we will call on your name.”
Jer 2:21: ‘I planted you [Israel] a choice vine, wholly of pure seed’. Is 27:6: ‘In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit.’
At the same time, though the Lord lavishes great care on his vineyard, it at times yields only ‘wild grapes’ (Is 5; Jer 2), sour and bitter. The vineyard or the vine loses its surrounding wall, is trampled by wild beasts (i.e. invading armies) or withered by the east wind (Ez 19:12), or destroyed by fire (Ez 19:14) or transplanted into the desert (Ez 19:13). Ezekiel 15 points out that the wood of the vine is no use for anything. Carpenters don’t make things of it. A vine either bears grapes or should be burned. All this is background to the parable.
In the Maccabean period, the vine often appeared on coins as a symbol of Israel. Most vividly, at the time of Jesus, a golden grapevine was draped across the four columns at the entrance to the Temple. Josephus records that its beauty was such that it was known as a marvel of size and artistry and costly material. [The Mishnah says that people would sometimes make a freewill offering by purchasing a golden leaf, berry, or cluster which the priests would then attach to this vine. Often those who gave generously to the Temple had their names inscribed on the golden leaves. This was a custom well-known in Jerusalem.]
c) In Sirach 24:17f, divine Wisdom compares herself to a vine: ‘Like a vine, I caused loveliness to bud, and my blossom became glorious and abundant fruit. I am the mother of beautiful love, of fear, of knowledge, and of holy hope; being eternal, I therefore am given to all my children, to those who are named by him.’ Here it seems that Wisdom expresses her life in her disciples, is identified with them, bears fruit in them.
All this is resonating when Jesus says, ‘I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser…I am the vine, you are the branches.’ And all the imagery of being broken off and burned, or pruned and fruitful.
What ‘caps, clears and clinches all’, what brings the story to completion and makes Jesus’ statement possible, is the mystery of the Incarnation. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,’ as the Prologue of John’s Gospel says. Like Wisdom Jesus has joined himself with his disciples. They are not simply his ‘vineyard’ which he looks after but remains distinct from. A vine and its branches cannot really be separated. They are one.
‘Since Christ, therefore, possessed a divine nature not shared by ourselves, he became man precisely in order that in his own person there might be a vine of human stock whose branches we could become…he could not be the vine if he were not human but he could not offer such a grace to his branches if he were not at the same time divine’ (St Augustine).
So a quite new kind of relationship, intimacy, union is now coming into existence. There is an expansion of human possibility. Thanks to the union of God and man in the person of Christ, humans can now share in the life and fruitfulness of God. They can do this in a way that goes beyond natural earthly life and fruitfulness.
“The vine is no longer merely a creature that God looks upon with love, but that he can still uproot and reject. In the Son, he himself has become the vine; he has forever identified himself, his very being, with the vine. The vine can never again be uprooted or handed over to be plundered. It belongs once and for all to God; through the Son, God himself lives in it. The promise has become irrevocable, the unity indestructible. God has taken this great new step within history, and this constitutes the deepest content of the parable. Incarnation, death and Resurrection come to be seen in their full breadth… The vine is a Christological title that as such embodies a whole ecclesiology. The vine signifies Jesus’ inseparable oneness with his own, who through him and with him are all ‘vine’, and whose calling is to ‘remain in the vine’…The discourse about the vine indicates the irrevocability of the gift God has given, never to take it back again. In becoming incarnate, God has bound himself” (J. Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 259, 260).
This surely can take the troubled disciples far beyond the sense of immediate loss. It sets them on rock. It assures them of a presence.
The centre of the parable is our union with Christ and his with us. But as Jesus develops his thought, it becomes clear that this union has its basis in his union with the Father and its final expression in union among ourselves. There are three unions here, therefore: three aspects of one interwoven communion, the Christological, Trinitarian and ecclesial. There is also a hidden presence, the Holy Spirit. It is he who unites the vine and the branches, he is what they have in common. ‘The branches of the vine are those who were united with him and … inserted and grafted into him so as to participate in his nature through receiving a share in the Holy Spirit; for we are made one with Christ the Saviour by his Holy Spirit’ (St Cyril of Alexandria). If we want to weave the Holy Spirit into the parable, ‘the Holy Spirit is like the sap of the Father’s vine which bears fruit on its branches’ (CCC 1108). He is ‘the force which through the green fuse drives the flower,’ generates fruit (cf. Gal 5:22).
We turn to the action: pruning, remaining, bearing fruit. The first of these is something the disciple undergoes, the second something he does.
The Father who prunes
‘I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser.’ Literally, the farmer.
It’s characteristic of Jesus to refer immediately to the Father. The Father cares for the Vine, guards it. He bends over it, studying it, bringing it on. Two actions are attributed to him in particular: to cut off or prune. In Greek there is a play on words: airei & kathairei. In the history of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, the 10 tribes, were ‘cut off’ and lost to history (722 BC), whereas Judah, the remainder, was ‘pruned’, purified, by the experience of defeat and exile (589 BC). ‘Go through her vine-rows and destroy, but make not a full end’ (Jer 5:10).
Pruning, literally purifying, is a necessary concomitant of every Christian’s life and of that of the whole Church. According to St John Chrysostom, Christ is referring ‘to the persecutions that were at that time about to descend on them…He showed that their trials will make them stronger.’ More ordinarily, the Lord both through the inner promptings of our conscience and external frustrations or difficulties is constantly cutting back our proclivities to sin. Or our life is taken away from what we would want to do and led in another direction. ‘Processes of purification, which are as necessary as they are painful, run through the whole of history, the whole life of those who have dedicated themselves to Christ. When man and his institutions climb too high, they need to be cut back; what has become too big must be brought back to the simplicity and poverty of the Lord himself’ (J. Ratzinger, op. cit., pp. 260-261). The recent history of religious life has seen much of this.
There is a passage in the Letter to the Hebrews which describes the process of ‘pruning’ in terms of ‘disciplining’:
“In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,
‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.’
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. ‘Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed” (Hebrews 12:4-11).
Remaining in the Vine
From v. 4 onwards a variety of themes follow each other – these are the breaking waves, repeating and varying themselves.
The first call on any branch is to ‘remain’ in the vine. The word occurs 10 times in these verses.
The alternative is to remaining is to be cut off, to dry up, to be collected and thrown on the fire, and burned. As so often in the parables and the Gospels generally, there is a threat of ultimate destruction on those who do not take up the grace offered. ‘The proper place for a branch is the vine or the fire’, says St Augustine. There’s no middle ground.
‘Remain in me and I in you.’ It is mutual
‘Whoever remains in me and I in him bears much fruit’. It is the condition of fruitfulness. ‘Apart from me you can do nothing.’
‘If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.’ So, this remaining means obeying Christ’s words or commandments. That in turn ensures effective prayer. If Christ’s word moves our heart, our words will move the Father’s heart.
‘Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.’ So our remaining in Christ is an echo or extension of his ‘remaining’ in the Father.
‘I have said these things, so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be full.’ So this remaining flowers in joy.
How translate this idea of ‘remaining’? Faith, faithfulness. Inner silence, listening, personal recollection. Perseverance – “patient steadfastness in communion with the Lord amid all the vicissitudes of life…Initial enthusiasm is easy. Afterward, though, it is time to stand firm, even along the monotonous desert paths that we are called upon to traverse in this life – with the patience it takes to tread evenly, a patience in which the romanticism of the initial awakening subsides, so that only the deep, pure Yes of faith remains. This is the way to produce good wine” (J. Ratzinger, p. 262). We bear fruit in patience. Monastic ‘stability’ comes in here.
The second call on a branch, the main one, is ‘to bear fruit.’ It’s for this the vine exists. For this, we’re grafted on to the vine, remain in it and undergo pruning. Everything is aimed at this.
The call is to bear ‘much fruit’, to be ‘polycarp’ (2, 5, 8). And ‘fruit that will last’ (16).
Again there is an accumulation of aspects, a cluster of thoughts:
‘By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples’. So bearing fruit is what glorifies the Father and proves our discipleship.
And again this will guarantee effective prayer, ‘so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he [will] give you.’
What is this fruit?
“The new life of faith and love…knowledge of all virtue and good works” (St Cyril of Alexandria). “…Conduct…works” (St John Chrysostom). So it’s our Christian living in general. Cf. Sirach 24:18 above.
Or it’s missionary activity, cf. Jn 4:36; 12:24. This fits the context and v.16.
Or it’s giving life to others, e.g. by overcoming the desire for revenge: ‘not to judge, not to condemn, but to forgive, to lift the burden from others’ (Jean Vanier). Or by intercession.
Or, more simply still, it’s love. ‘The fruit the Lord expects of us is love – a love that accepts with him the mystery of the Cross, and becomes a participation in his self-giving’ (J. Ratzinger, p. 262). Jesus is the Vine, and the fruit, the wine he produces is that poured out on the Cross, namely his redemptive, life-giving love, the new wine of the marriage feast of the Lamb. And we are asked to bear the same fruit: to bear grapes that are not watery or sour, but become the wine that gladdens man’s heart and add to the joy of the Kingdom of God. The second part of Jn 15:1-17 is enclosed by the command to love one another.
This brings us back to the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the sacrament of Christ’s love, and when we eat this bread and drink this cup we recall that love and are able to experience and interiorize it so that we can then live it. One post-Communion prayer asks that ‘rejoicing we may bear fruit for the salvation of the world.’ Jesus wants us to be purveyors of his wine, his blood, his love to the world for the glory of the Father.
- What does the image of the Vine and the branches add to our life?
- What does it mean to be pruned by the Father?
- How do we remain in the Vine?
- How do we bear fruit?
- Which people does this Parable bring to your mind?
- How would you develop the connection with the Eucharist?
By Way of Conclusion
“Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The fruit referred to in this saying is the holiness of a life made fruitful by union with Christ. When we believe in Jesus Christ, partake of his mysteries, and keep his commandments, the Savior himself comes to love, in us, his Father and his brethren, our Father and our brethren. His person becomes, through the Spirit, the living and interior rule of our activity. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (CCC 2074).