Behind the image of Jesus as the true vine lies the rich tradition of the vine as a symbol for Israel, enshrined in the Scripture, art, and liturgy of the Jewish people. The image of the vineyard and the vine recurs over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures. According to Isaiah, Israel is God’s vineyard. Psalm 80 speaks of Israel as a vine God brought out of Egypt and planted in the land God cleared. Jeremiah prophesied that Israel was a luxuriant vine that became wild. Hosea remarked that this wild vine yielded abundant fruit to false gods. Jeremiah warned that Israel’s faithless branches had to be stripped away and its remnant gleaned. According to Ezekiel Israel’s withered stem would be consumed by fire. The prophets’ thunder against the fruitless vine did not, however, obliterate the image of Israel as God’s vine, an image that appeared on coins from the Maccabean period and adorned the entrance to the sanctuary in Herod’s Temple, sculpted in gold. When Jesus uses the image to reveal himself as well as the role of his Father, he finds a place for all of us in this beautiful metaphor.
Although Jesus does not specify that he is speaking of a grape vine, the references of the Hebrew Scriptures and the prominence of wine in the life of the Jewish people make it impossible to think of any other kind of vine. In addition, three of Jesus’s parables are set in vineyards. However, while the Scriptural references that come before St. John’s Gospel speak of Israel as the vine, it is clear that John’s vine is no longer a symbol of Israel but of Jesus himself. Jesus is the true vine.
Against this background, Jesus’ “I AM” statement or saying carried climactic force to John’s first readers. Whereas they had previously counted on their being Israelites to assure their living relationship to God, Jesus’ claim to be the true vine means that he is the vital link with God.
While Jesus is the vine, God the Father is the vine grower or husbandman or vinedresser. The Father’s work as husbandman is twofold. First, God removes or cuts off branches that bear no fruit; secondly, God prunes or cuts clean those that do bear fruit so that they will bear more. Jesus then assures his disciples that they are the clean branches because they have been cleansed by the Word; namely the Word made flesh.
Two further truths about the branches that are important for our understanding lie in the truth about grape vines themselves. First, the branches are made of a wood that is basically useless unless it is connected to the vine. They cannot be used to build nor do they suffice as wood for a warming fire. Consequently, we must come to the realization that unless connected to the vine, we, the branches, are useless. Secondly, it is impossible to think of this metaphor in our usual individualistic ideas about our relationship with God. There is nothing singular about the branches of the vine. This is emphasized in that the original Greek uses the pronoun “you” in the plural in this passage.
The Gospel passage turns a bit darker as we proceed. Jesus includes a solemn warning in a series of passive verbs that contend that branches that are not connected are thrown away and gathered together and burned. This dark warning echoes the judgment pronounced in Ezekiel’s lament for the princes of Israel which speaks of the once luxuriant vine now dried up in the scorching sun of the desert. We come away from this warning knowing that the fruitless branches are of no use to the keeper of the vineyard. However, John does not let us dwell on the negative but returns to the promise first made to those who believe in Jesus. Those who remain, who abide in Jesus are reassured that “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it.”
Thus the Gospel presents us with a command, a promise and a warning. We are commanded to abide or remain. Those who remain are promised that all we ask will be done if we keep His commandments. However, we cannot escape the truth that the vineyard belongs to the Father who has no need for withered branches. The primary concern of God conveyed through this allegory is fruitfulness: fruitful disciples in a fruitful church, bringing the fruit of a lived Gospel to the world.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator