I Am the True Vine
by: Archbishop Charles E. Smith, OSF
Today, we find ourselves as Orthodox /Catholics surrounded in a pool of literal interpretation when compared to the Christian Church at large. Interestingly, Jesus so often did not speak literally, but figuratively. He spoke in allegories and images. He painted word pictures. Instead of literally coming out and saying what he meant, he so often would tell a story and let people draw their own conclusion. Indeed, these hidden messages of Jesus frequently frustrated his disciples. They wished that he would speak literally and not be quite so subtle. But, in Jesus' own words he spoke to them (us) in parables. This morning we encounter yet another "I Am" saying of Jesus. "I am the true vine". Obviously, this cannot be taken in a "literal" way so we must look beyond the surface and do some exploring. We have to go beyond the actual words and discover what Jesus is really saying to us.
The people of Judea knew what he was talking about. Grape growing was an industry that had been carefully cultivated throughout the country for centuries. It was crucial because it was a cash crop as opposed to grain, which was raised purely for consumption. In the early years of our country the essential crop was corn, but the cash crop was tobacco. It was, therefore, vital to the economy of the land.
When I lived in 'Little Italy' in Cleveland, I discovered more about "grapes" than any place else. Some of the families had grape vines that they brought back from the old country and the cultivated them into lush crops for making their own family wine, in some cases, these vines go back into their "roots" over a hundreds of years old. The vines are a very rugged crop, but in like manner a very delicate fruit and requires being treated with kid gloves. A young vine is not permitted to bear fruit for the first three years. It is therefore drastically pruned in December and January to preserve its energy. The particular branches that do not bear fruit are cut out to further conserve the energy of the plant. If this constant cutting back was not done, the result would be a crop that was not up to its full potential.
So certainly the people could identify with that metaphor about the vineyard, even as a person in this area knows about corn and tobacco. It didn't make any difference whether or not you were in that business. You had grown up around it enough that you would still be familiar with it.
We say here in America "Amber waves of grain" as the grain is a symbol of who we are. In Judea they thought of their nation as a vineyard. It was a kind of national identity. Over and over again in the Old Testament, Israel is pictured as the vine or the vineyard of God.
Isaiah the prophet pictured Israel as the vineyard of God. He said: "The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel". (Isaiah 5:7) In Jeremiah, we read God referring to his chosen people in this way: "I planted you as a choice vine". (Jeremiah 2:21) Hosea spoke a word of judgment when he said: "Israel has become an empty vine" (Hosea 10:1) . In the Psalms we read that God compares Israel to a vine that came out of Egypt (Psalm 80:8). Josephus, the Roman historian, informs us that over the Temple in Jerusalem was carved an exquisite, gold leaf grapevine. It stood as a symbol of national unity. Israel itself was, in the eyes of its people, the true vine, whose roots ran all the way back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
In Jesus analogy, he likened himself to a vine, while the fruit bearing branches here are the disciples. God the farmer is depicted as the one who cultivates the vineyard. He waters and tends the soil, so that the vine is properly nourished. He takes pride in his crop. But this means that he also prunes the vines and removes the dead wood. The grapes hang on to the branches. What Jesus is saying is clear. The disciples should receive their strength from Jesus. He is the true vine. If they break away from him, they will be like unproductive branches and die and bear no fruit. They then will have to be pruned out.
What can we make of this analogy in terms of our daily life? What does it mean to be God's vineyard?
First, I think that it raises a question that we must all answer: Are we bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God. How can you tell a pear tree? By the fruit that it bears. How can you tell an apple tree? By the fruit that it bears. How can you tell a Christian. By the fruit that he bears? It is just as simple as that. The fruits of the vine are not church attendance, or Biblical knowledge, or your individual stewardship. Even though all of those things are important, the true fruit of the vine is a loving and compassionate life. Folks, it all comes down to this how do you treat other people? That is as simple and as direct as I can put it.
Secondly, the saying says to us that there is such a thing as an unproductive life. In Jesus analogy, the farmer (God) is depicted as pruning out bad branches. We don't like to wrestle with that concept, because it implies that God cuts some people out. There is an element of judgment in it that we would just as soon not deal with. There are those who are quick to point out that Jesus was here specifically referring to the Jews. That is true. But we miss the point if we do not understand that this law of nature also applies to Christians.
Dead branches are not only non-productive; they pull the energy away from the vine and keep it from fruit bearing new branches. We like to think that there are various degrees of allegiance, but the truth is that in God's vineyard there are only two kinds of branches those that bring forth fruit, and those that do not. The former are cultivated, the latter are pruned. God blesses the lives of those persons who are productive for his Kingdom.
Third, we must cultivate a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus said: "You must abide in me and my words in you". He is talking here about a relationship. As the fruit receives its nourishment from the vine, so too do we turn to Christ for our daily nourishment and growth. How tragic it is that so many today see their strength as being financial security, or peer respect, or their own creative ingenuity, or a host of other things. These things may feed us for a day or even for a season, but there comes a time when they will not bring the deep nourishment that we seek. For that we need God.