Vine and branches: true vine

Jesus-Apostles-vine-branch2The ancient Old Testament allegory of Israel as Yahweh’s vine becomes deeply Christianized at this point. Jesus is the true vine of which the Father takes personal care, pruning the barren branches, trimming clean the fruitful. These latter are the disciples who have accepted Jesus’ life-giving word. They are invited, encouraged to live on, to abide in Jesus. The Greek word for “abide/remain,” menō, occurs eleven times in these few verses, a repeated insistence on the return of Jesus by indwelling. The other all-important word is “love.” Just as “abide/remain” is the essential word of verses 1–8, so “love” becomes essential in vv.9–17. Consider how the “Vine and Branches” metaphor concludes: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another.” (John 15:16-17)

The central teaching of this allegory is clear. Remaining in Jesus through love is essential. If this happens, when it happens, the disciple will produce fruit (vv. 5, 8). When it does not happen, the disciple is no disciple at all, but good for nothing but fuel (v. 6).

The True Vine. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” (15:1) … “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” (15:5)

The symbol of the vine has a rich tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures and it is easy to see that Jesus is very much rooted within the tradition as he speaks to his disciples. In Sir 24:16–17, for example, Wisdom compares herself to a vine: “I bud forth delights like a vine; my blossoms are glorious and rich fruit.” The song of the vineyard (Isa 5:1–7) offers the parade example of “vine” as a symbol for the people of God. In this text, “the house of Israel and the people of Judah” are explicitly identified as “the vineyard of the Lord” (v. 7). The failure of Judah to live in justice and righteousness is expressed through the metaphor of yielding fruit: God, the planter, expected grapes, but Judah produced only wild grapes (vv. 2, 4). These verses also make use of the language of clearing away (v. 5) and pruning (v. 6) to describe God’s actions toward the vineyard. Similar imagery reappears in Jer 2:21; Ezek 19:10–14; Hos 10:1; Ps 80:8–19; Isa 27:2–6; and Ezek 15:1–8; 17:7–8. Vine imagery remained a symbol for Israel in rabbinic Scripture interpretation, as well as in the synoptic Gospels (Matt 21:33–46; Mark 12:1–12; Luke 20:9–16). The vine imagery in John 15:1–17 should thus be read in the context of the rich use of this symbol in Jewish Scriptures and tradition.

In the “I am” (egō eimi) saying of 15:1, as with the symbols of the other “I am” statements in the Gospel according to John, the traditional symbol of the vine is wholly redefined by its christological content. Jesus does not simply adapt the vine imagery in order to suggest that he is now the true Israel. The fuller identification of Jesus as the vine (vv. 1 and 5) is described by the verses that fall between.

In v. 1, Jesus’ self-identification is lodged in the context of his relationship with God, in v. 5 in the context of his relationship with the community of his followers. When Jesus speaks of himself as the vine, then, his words are not only self-revelatory, but are revelatory of the interrelationship of God, Jesus, and the community in the life of faith as well. All three elements—gardener, vine, and branches—are essential to the production of fruit. The repetition of the “I am” saying in vv. 1 and 5 positions Jesus as the middle ground between God and the community.

Even more than the “shepherd” imagery in John 10, which conveys the notion of the intimacy between Jesus and his “sheep,” the illustration of a vine and its branches focuses on the organic, vital connection that Jesus has with his followers, a connection that will be made possible in the future through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

But many scholars suggest there is also something to the idea of being the “true” Israel. In the OT, the people/tribes/nation of Israel was the channel through whom God’s blessings were to flow to humanity and all the world. In Isaiah’s vision those blessings flowed from the Temple out to all the world; Jerusalem was to be the light on the hill calling all people to one, true God. Many of the Jewish festivals carried such intentions and hopes. Later in John we see Jesus presented as the true temple, and here, as the new Israel connecting God and people. (Note: St. Paul is more concrete in his symbolism, noting that it is the gentiles who are grafted onto the stock root of Israel, speaking to continuity rather than replacement which some argue based on John 15 alone). What is perhaps more precise is that Jesus becomes the focus of God’s plan of salvation, with the implication that faith in Jesus becomes the decisive characteristic for membership among God’s people. Whereas OT Israel was ethnically constrained, the new messianic community, made up of believing Jews and Gentiles, is united by faith in Jesus the Messiah. Jews still have a place in God’s family, but they must come to God on his terms. This speaks to the paradigm shift of which St. Paul speaks in Galatians and Romans: faith in Jesus has replaced keeping the law as the primary point of reference.

Notes

John 15:1 true vine: The use of “true” may also suggest that there could be false “vines” from which one might seek to find nourishment for bearing fruit. These “false vines” might be other people/groups, e.g. the current religious leadership of Israel, or other religions/philosophies, e.g. Docetism, Gnosticism, or Stoicism. Some commentators suggest that the use of “true” may point to Israel as the degenerate vine (Jer. 2:21) now replaced by the true one. That is, where Israel and the convent was the means of salvation, now Jesus is the vine leading to the Father.

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