Jesus uses a familiar image to describe himself in today’s Gospel, an image that was used over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures. Isaiah wrote: “The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.” Jeremiah wrote: “Yet I planted you a choice vine.” Ezekiel likens Israel to the vine when he states: “Israel is a luxuriant vine. In Psalm 80, we pray with the people of Israel: “You did bring a vine out of Egypt.”
When Solomon built the great Temple of Jerusalem, a great, golden vine was used to decorate the front of the Holy Place. Many wealthy Israelites contributed gold to mold a new bunch of grapes or even one new grape on to that vine. The coin used by the Maccabees was engraved with a vine. Indeed, the vine had become the symbol of Israel by the time Jesus appears on the scene.
Jesus calls himself the “true” vine. The Greek word used here can also be translated as “real” or “genuine.” Jesus uses this word to distance himself from earlier references to the vine because it is a curious fact that all of the references in the Hebrew Scriptures refer to the degeneration of the vine. The point of Isaiah’s preaching is that the vine has grown wild. Jeremiah complains that Israel has turned into a wild and degenerate vine. Jesus states that it is not enough to think of yourself as saved if you are a branch on the vine of Israel. The only thing that can save you is an intimate relationship with the “true vine.”
There is much in this passage about abiding with Jesus. Because we celebrate the Feast of St. Clare today, this Gospel may have been chosen simply because it speaks a little about the life of the cloistered contemplative whose who purpose is to abide with Jesus through prayer. However, not all are called to cloistered or contemplative life. So the notion of abiding with Jesus must have a connection to our own situation as well.
I am reminded of a practice that is part of most 12 step groups. In attempting to break free of an addiction, those who participate in the 12 steps are asked to secure a sponsor for themselves, someone they can call upon in an hour of temptation or an hour of need. That person pledges to help the person to overcome the temptation to return to their addiction.
If we apply this kind of relationship to our own lives, we can see that abiding with Jesus is an attitude that will help us to overcome our “addiction” to sin. Each of us is a sinner. Without Jesus, we would have no hope for salvation. However, if we abide in Jesus, if we remain with him, he becomes our hope. He is our salvation.
When we abide with Jesus, when we are connected to the vine, then we are able to produce good fruit. We are able to set aside the temptations to sin and to work with Jesus to bring others to the life that flows through the true vine. The one thing about the wood of a vine that I find curious, and I have perhaps said this before, is that it is good for nothing if it is cut from the vine. It is too soft to be used for any purpose and is not even capable of providing fuel for a fire. Abiding with Jesus, then, is the only way that we can provide good fruit, for as he has told us, “Without me, you can do nothing.”
St. Clare, by her life of prayer and her life of charity in her communal life with the sisters, is described by Francis as his “little plant.” The fruit of her life is a clear indication that she did indeed remain or abide with Jesus, the true vine.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator