Introduction: The way we read a Bible text is often determined by how we have always read and explained it. Occasionally we discover new dimensions. Undoubtedly, the Holy Spirit plays an important role in such insights. We can also encourage this process by asking questions. These two approaches (the intuitive and the rational) do not have to clash, but can be in harmony. Today, while listening to an excellent sermon on this parable, I immediately started to reflect on something which was not addressed. Not everything can be addressed in one sermon, of course. But here is what I thought.
Question: If the vine represents Christ, and Christ is perfect, why did God need to remove branches from that true and perfect vine? It clearly says, “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit”. How could the true vine have branches that bear no fruit, so that they need to be removed? Was it perhaps not the true vine after all, or was the true vine not perfect? The problem is not solved by saying that we are the branches, because in the parable we are still part of that vine. And in so far we do not “abide” in that vine anymore, it seems to be because “we” have been pruned, thrown away, withered, gathered, thrown in the fire and/or burned.
These are all stages of decay, which go in one direction only and seem irreversible. They are mysterious, because they do not explain the initial pruning. If a branch no longer abides in the vine, why does it need to be pruned? And if it is pruned, does that not in itself cut it off from the life giving juices, so that it cannot bear fruit? Could it be that the branch is using the precious juices without producing fruit? That would still be a mystery, for it would render those powerful and life-giving spiritual juices, which represent the Holy Spirit and being Christ-like, ineffective in some cases.
Another answer to this problem might be to point out the limits of any analogy. Are we not stretching the meaning too much and asking impossible questions? On the other hand, the questions about the imperfect being part of the perfect, are pretty essential. They also touch on the matter of good and evil. So let us continue this line of thought. How can we interpret these verses so that there is less (seeming) contradiction?
- The parable contains two important clues. First, the branches that bear no fruit are not the only ones that are pruned. The same happens to the ones that do bear fruit, in order to make them bear more fruit! This means there is no black and white situation, but a whole spectrum of more or less growth. It is not the good guys versus the bad ones, with one group being rewarded and the other one being punished, although the latter could still be the case in extreme situations.
- Secondly, the text does not only speak of abiding in Christ, but also of Christ abiding in us. It is true that Christ became one of us at the incarnation. Our human blood would also stream through his veins and he knew about our desires and our suffering. Christians also believe that Christ is the Branch as referred to in Isaiah 11:1, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit”. And so he is part of the human vine, like his disciples are part of him.
- Then there are indications in the New Testament that each of us individually can be regarded as a kind of vine, a (secondary) source of positive energy. Jesus says in John 7:38,39: “Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said: ‘Streams of living water will flow from within him.’” He was speaking about the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were later to receive” (Living Water translation).
When we take all these images and clues together, we arrive at descriptions of the divine life, which life inevitably extends to a community (or it would not be divine and inspiring) and returns to God. It flows in a circle. Just like the fruits of the vine contain seeds which may start new vines, so the fruits of our life in Christ are important because they will continue that life in us and in others. And what we do for others will be as if we have done it for Christ. So the good works are not an end in themselves, something primarily to be rewarded or punished, but a limitless, natural and healing flow of pure being.
The whole parable is about integration and separation. A community is a number of people whose lives are intertwined, integrated. The best thing which can happen is when those lives are also intimately connected with the Eternal One. But what about separation? The parable shows us that separation is not only a bad thing. Some things are meant to be removed, in order to increase the fruitfulness of the remainder. Let us apply this, for a change, to our personal vines or lives. This time we are the grower, so we can remove things from our lives which are not fruitful. But we are also still part of the vine of Christ, so God will sometimes remove things from our lives to make us more fruitful. We don’t have to do everything ourselves!
Having said this, let us look at the seven stages of pruning or being pruned.
- Awareness and decision. Accumulating habits, goals and opinions seems to be easier than suspending or rejecting them. But sometimes it is necessary to say no, not only to the habits, goals and opinions of others, but also to our own. We do not have to give up all our ideals and desires, but we cannot give our energy to too many details, things we have not sufficiently investigated, or that which is (potentially) damaging. The same applies to our habits and opinions. We will not be able to please everyone, but we can embark on a cleansing and transformation of our most problematic traits.Awareness is the key to this and all following stages of cleansing. Right at the start of the parable Jesus says that his hearers have been cleansed by the word (singular) he has spoken to them. This is about more than words (plural) or information. The Word which is active in creation and recreation is pure consciousness and grace.
To help us a little more, some of our goals are blocked by external factors, anyway. Circumstances change and certain things we thought were important (whether that’s true or not), just become impossible. We will have to adapt one way or another. I am not saying there is always a grand plan behind this, but it will be easier if we consciously accept the way things are and consciously decide on realistic and perhaps even better goals.
- The actual pruning. Even if we consciously decide to abandon a goal or a habit, or consciously accept the reality of a roadblock, it will still hurt. That pain is what often prevents people from changing course. They would prefer other people to change, and this can become another goal that can drain all our energy. We can still work for change in others, but we should first learn about change by allowing it in ourselves. When we do this, we will understand a whole lot better why others find it so difficult to change. Unfortunately many change managers only use their knowledge to manipulate. Sometimes they even want to change that which is already fruitful, but not agreeable to them.God is not like that. No matter what difficulties God allows to be thrown at us, God never takes away the freedom to draw our own conclusions and follow our own conscience. On the contrary, we are given the freedom to be inconsistent! Christ’s sacrifice and forgiveness ensure that shame of our old behaviour does not keep us trapped in that same behaviour. The grace of justification sets us free for sanctification.
- Throwing away. This means that we must say goodbye to some of our old habits, goals and opinions. It is no good to keep coming back to them, as if we are not sure. But this may happen if we derived some benefit from them, or have not yet found a suitable alternative, or if the new course of action was blocked as well. Even in those cases, it will never do to go back to the exact old situation. The old situation probably no longer exists, so even if the old strategy worked a little bit, it may no longer do so in the current situation. We have to be prepared to constantly reinvent ourselves.On the other hand our goals do not have to become the opposite of what they were. Some people go all the way from a sectarian fundamentalism or ritualism to atheism or debauchery. That is not necessary. We are to transform our habits and beliefs into something both practical and compassionate, while preserving the best of certain timeless principles and traditions.
- Let it wither. If even the things that used to work lose their efficacy, how much more will those that didn’t work become useless. By allowing time to pass, we will see more evidence that the old was indeed insufficient in some way. That will make it easier not to return to your former ways.Remember that this is not the same as developing a lot of guilt about your former self. Before you decided to prune or allowed yourself to be pruned, you did not know what you know now. Now you have been forgiven. The only thing you should feel guilty about, is refusing to let go of that which does not help you any longer to become a stronger, more mature and responsible person.
- The gathering. Looking back at a number of changes you had to make or accept, you will begin to see a pattern. It is important to learn lessons from the events in your life and the way you responded. Group them together and reflect. Like the previous stage, this will make it easier to make further changes. You may find that the same kind of situations kept coming back. They may be related to your personality, or they may not. Again, don’t blame yourself too much, but appreciate yourself for taking the time to reflect. Many people never reach this stage and just keep repeating the same behaviour or thought on the automatic pilot.
- Throwing into the fire. When you are sure about the patterns that are not OK or obsolete, you can begin to address those patterns instead of the individual undesirable actions and thoughts. A number of things are very important in this stage. Again, apply it to yourself first. You may have gained enough knowledge to help others with this process as well, but this is not about individual actions or thoughts you may disapprove of, it is more about the patterns and the criteria to be used when calling something desirable or undesirable. Some of those criteria could be faith, freedom, maturity, equality, honesty and compassion.This stage is less about judging individuals or individual opinions than about watching trends in society and asking the right questions. Most of us rely too much on outward appearances and tell-tale signs. Those external symbols which we often use to quickly identify who is the enemy, are not going to be helpful, because inner motivations are more important than cultural and other conditioned expressions.
However, we also need to firmly condemn those strategies of certain groups, organisations and governments which clearly violate the principles of common decency, justice and benevolence. This is especially urgent when they falsely pretend to have only good intentions, but openly disregard the need for truth, justice and mercy. It could be called our prophetic responsibility to expose such corruption. The fact that God carries out the ultimate judgement, does not mean that we are not called to take a stance and reject evil.
- This stage is similar to stage 4, the withering. If the undesirable patterns have been correctly identified, this stage will be further confirmation. But again this will take time. The initial reaction will be one of shock to our system and to “the” system. I need to emphasize, however, that this “burning” is not about violence or destruction. All vines from which the branches and tiny grapes are removed survive and even thrive.What a contrast to, for instance, the “Great Reset” which is currently being rolled out by the World Economic Forum! A reset is a dangerous concept, borrowed from the world of computers and gadgets. It relies on a total clearing of the working memory and certain settings in a machine, so that, hopefully, certain errors that have troubling us will not reoccur. This, however, is a modern superstition, promoted by a rich cult. The damage could be serious, as humans and society are not like computers you can switch off or restart. When we skip the previous stages of pruning or do not involve the general public in the reflection and decision making process, the burning stage will only bring disaster. Unfortunately the new technocratic leadership style considers our freedom as one of the causes of our present problems, to be solved by the Reset. Again, the pruning in our gospel text is a far more careful process.
Yesterday, the 4th of May 2021, which in the Netherlands is the National Memorial Day for our fallen soldiers from WOII and after, Welmoed Vlieger wrote an interesting column in Trouw. She pointed out the apparently missing inner moral convictions and values in our current crisis and political order. Our democracy and rule of law probably cannot survive on laws, rules and procedures only. She insists that a democracy needs the inner reflection and experience of its individual citizens to realise why values like freedom, trust, respect and care for each other are so important. And this inner dimension of society can only be developed in freedom, never controlled from above.
This is in line with my point about values (in my description of stage 6). Far more important than our individual and collective acts and opinions are the values and principles (or lack thereof) on which they are based. The Bible is full of such references to the inner life being more important than the outer manifestations, e.g. Proverbs 4:23 (NIV), “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it”. Because we cannot improve the world with a technocratic experiment, we need to firmly reject it. This would be in line with our prophetic responsibility as mentioned in point 6.
Welmoed concludes her column by calling on us to listen to our inner voice, to value other voices, transparancy and open debate, and to allow the transcendent (I would say the Holy Spirit) to inspire our values. In the title she speaks of the “holy” duty of the powerful. They should realise that they are not omniscient and can only function to the extent that they obey higher principles. It is arrogant of them to suggest that they can self-impose a new culture just like that, unless they have planned something really superficial. Our only hope for growth and for seeing through the popular deceptions is to remain firmly and consciously rooted in the vine which is Jesus Christ and to understand what is involved in spiritual pruning.
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