The parable of the true vine is a rich one. Whenever I read it, I find new meaning in it. But what is the main message here? And how is it more than just another sermon about love? Could this parable help us to improve our lives in real and practical terms? Absolutely! And it is not meant to just govern the behaviour of people in church.
When we study the parable of the vine, we must come to the conclusion that it is almost like a cosmology. It describes how all human beings can grow and thrive spiritually and how they can boycott themselves. Perhaps it goes even further than that and describes the whole development of life.
Let us go through the text, starting out in the order in which it was written down for us.
- The first remarkable thing is the word “I”. Jesus applies to himself what is normally considered as the way God works in us. The first letter of John says: “Those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them”. Elsewhere (a.o. in John 10:30) Jesus says “I and the Father are one”. And therefore in this parable, Christ makes no distinction between himself and the Father, at least not as far as the “mutual indwelling” is concerned. He does, however, honour the Father by placing Him on a higher level, not as the vine, but as the vine grower.
And so there are different roles within the Trinity, but they are all enabling growth and harvest.
- The next remarkable thing is the expression “the true vine”. It implies that there is only one way in which we can really grow and bear fruit. The first letter of John makes it clear that this way is to be found in divine love. And since Jesus identifies himself with this divine love, we must (if we have not already done so) considerably adjust our view of Christ. He is not just a supreme example of love, but like God, He should be regarded as the source of all love. Poetically speaking, God and Christ ARE love. And when I say “poetically speaking”, that is not to say they are in reality less than love, but rather they are more. Love is only one of God’s supreme powers, albeit the most excellent one.
- Now if there is one “true” vine, we cannot help but ask ourselves if there are also “false” vines. The parable does not mention any. I believe this was done on purpose. Just like false gods are not actually gods, so there is no other way to bear fruit, to be really productive, than through love. But we may think we can be productive or live satisfying lives in other ways. These are all illusions.Unfortunately many individuals, many organisations, actually believe they are more than a branch, they are a vine in their own right, not just sharing with others, but feeding them. And they claim that when they take good care of themselves, other people less worthy, but hard working, will automatically benefit.It is called the trickle-down effect. Far from being a kind of charity, this idea means that the only responsibility companies have is to maximize their profits. When that money is spent, it gives other people the opportunity to earn some of it. I am not sure if these free market fundamentalists actually believe it, or that it is a clever disguise, but the idea is that whatever is necessary in a society for the welfare of its citizens is guaranteed by just enabling a number of people to make lots of money. All that is needed is deregulation, low taxes and therefore also a small government that does not provide any public services, subsidies or aid. Public services and the protection of vulnerable people are actually considered a threat to this neoliberal utopia. Now they know that their reforms cause a certain amount of pain (mainly to others), but they find this an acceptable price to pay.This is the kind of idolatry we find ourselves surrounded with today. Once you know what to look for, you can recognize it everywhere.
Now you may object that you cannot compare Jesus’ spiritual insight with economic theory. But let me then just point out that Jesus admonished rich people to give to the poor, not just to give them a semblance of freedom. Jesus even said that if the affluent do not share their wealth, it will be hard for them to enter the kingdom of heaven. The free market ideology, on the other hand, is pursued with a religious fervour, in spite of the absence of scientific proof that it actually works. Therefore the gospel and this kind of extreme capitalism are in direct competition. No just and stable society can exist without the love and care which is at the core of the gospel message. There is only one vine.But les us return to the parable.
- The next thing to note is the word “vine” itself. Both in the Old Testament and in some other parables of Christ, the vine refers to the people of Israel. Psalm 80:8 speaks of God taking “a vine out of Egypt” and planting it in Canaan. But here Christ himself is the vine, the foundation of a new Israel.
- Then another thing to note is that God either removes a branch or cleanses it.
There is a word play in the original Greek language, as the 2 verbs sound similar, airo and kathairo. Remove or cleanse (also translated as purge or prune). In both cases it is God who acts, not we. We cannot remove ourselves from the vine. There is simply no alternative. This is confirmed when Jesus says: “Without me you can do nothing”. So even when we do not produce any fruit, it is an illusion to think we can do without the life that is in Christ. Again, we must conclude that Christ is much more than a teacher, even more than the incarnation. The Spirit of Christ somehow feeds all life, whether we notice or accept it or not.
- But if we remain connected until God removes us, why does Jesus tell us to abide in Him? Here we should note that Christ speaks of two kinds of abiding or remaining: He in us, and we in Him. Only when both conditions are met, can we produce fruit. It is not only necessary that Christ’s life flows through us, as is also signified by the consecrated wine we drink during communion, but we should also abide in Him. This is later explained as His words abiding in us.
So it is not only about the grace of life and energy, but also about His teachings and commandments. That is why one of our readings, from Acts, was about Philip teaching the court official on his way to Gaza. The 1st letter of John says, “So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God”. And the author continues, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
- One final and important question remains. How do we know whether, in the eyes of God, we bear fruit of not? What about the danger of our “branch” being removed from the vine and burned?
Well, in verse 3 Jesus says to his disciples, “You have already been cleansed by the word I have spoken to you. Here the same Greek word “katharoi” is used, which means to purge, to prune. The fact that God has already pruned us through the Word that came to us in Christ, means that there was already some fruit, and we were pruned, corrected, in order to bear fruit more abundantly.And the first letter of John explains, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.” What this is saying is that there is no need for fear. Fear is driven out by love.
And that love does not even have to start with us, as long as we accept and reflect and ponder God’s love. For this is the perfection of love, not that we are perfect, but that He is perfect in and through us.Several times Christ points us to his commandments, and becoming even more what we already are, his disciples. But this is not all about duties. It is above all about joy, the joy of growth, transformation and harvest, both in God, in Christ and in us. “Herein is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit”. “These things have I spoken to you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy may be full.”So when we experience our daily difficulties, we can rest assured that the Father and the Son are taking care of us, giving us every assistance possible to feed and protect us. One of our locums once said, “If God wants there to be a specific church in a particular place, He will make it possible”. Yes, God makes all good things possible, as long as we remain united with Him. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” This is how we can turn possibilities into realities, when our will coincides with God’s.
May the power of the resurrected Christ, fill us with love and joy and resolve, by His eternal Spirit. And may this lasting connection with our Lord, take away every remaining fear.