Vine and branches: the grower

Jesus-Apostles-vine-branch2The Vine Grower. Like the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5, John 15:2 depicts the role of God as the grower who spades, clears, plants and takes care of the vineyard only to be rewarded with wild/sour grapes (Isa. 5:1–7; cf. Ps. 80:8–9). According to 15:2, the vinedresser does two things to ensure maximum fruit production (“he takes away … he prunes”; cf. Heb. 6:7–8): (1) in the winter he cuts off the dry and withered branches, which may involve pruning the vines to the extent that only the stalks remain; (2) later, when the vine has sprouted leaves, he removes the smaller shoots so that the main fruit-bearing branches receive adequate nourishment

The description of God’s actions toward both unproductive and productive branches involves a word play that is difficult to reproduce in an English translation. The verb for “prune” (kathairō) in v. 2b is a compound form of the root verb “to take away” (airō), which is used in v. 2a. One scholar chooses to translate the two verbs as “cuts clean” and “cuts off.” This may come closest to giving the English-language reader a sense of how the Greek reader would have heard this verse.

Taking Away and Pruning. There appears to only be two acts of the vine grower in this analogy and both involve cutting (v.2). One cutting is to destroy the branch the other is to improve the branch’s fruit bearing ability. Note that both of these verbs are in the present tense; they are ongoing activities. The grower continues to cut out the dead and prune the good. Yet interestingly, neither of these terms (airo nor kathairo) are primarily horticultural terms. The word airo means “to lift up and carry (away).” It is used of the Lamb of God taking away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Something that is “taken away” may be “destroyed,” the meaning of the word in John 11:48.

Although this is the only instance of kathairo in the NT, there are a number of related words (katharizo, katharismos, katharos, katharotes) used in the NT that clearly indicate that the stem kathar– refers to the elimination of ritual impurities or contaminations. Terms related to “clean” or “purify” are frequently used to translate this group of words. For example, the jars of purification in John 2:6 (see also 3:25); and the cleanliness of the disciples in John 13:10-11. Given the context of vine growing, kathairo is translated “prune.”

As the Johannine scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown notes [660], while there is attestation to the use of these words in an agricultural sense, there are always other verbs needed to put the words in context. Like other scholars, Brown believes that these words were chosen for the “word play/verbal similarity” at one level, and because of the many layers of potential meaning. Typically in John’s writing, there are many layers of meaning (e.g. anothen in the encounter with Nicodemus). God, the vine grower, can prune the branches, which can also be understood as a cleansing or purifying of the disciples.

One could ask what are the “tools” of the trade for the vine grower. Looking ahead to v.3 it is identified as “the word that I spoke to you.” This last verb is a perfect tense which implies an action in the past with continuing effect in the present. It can be legitimately translated in the present tense: “which Jesus speaks to you.” Jesus’ word was not just something spoken back in history. It was that, but the power of that word continues to cleanse and purify and prune “wooden,” fruit-bearing Christians today. This power of the word to cut is confessed well in Hebrews 4:12: “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” Consider St. Peter in his encounter at the end of John’s gospel as Jesus prunes away Peter’s denial: “Do you love me?

Verses 2-5 speak to the effects/necessity of pruning for the faithful disciples: bear more fruit (v.2), pruned by the Word (v.3), need to remain in Jesus in order to continue to bear fruit (vv.4-5). St. Peter might well be the example of all of these played out in the life of a believer.

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.

John 15:2 vine grower: the Greek geōrgos is literally “one who tilts the soil” but is a word that also addresses the vine grower. takes away…prunes:

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