“The theme being underscored,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “is that of enduring relationship with Jesus on the part of each disciple and the joyous outcome of this relationship” (page 233). Jesus uses another “figure of speech” to illustrate the intimate encounter with and connection to Jesus that has been at the center of John’s gospel account from the beginning.
“The note in v. 6 about persons (branches) not fully engrafted into the vine is a warning about what will happen if the close interpersonal bond is weakened. Such language implies substantial concern among group members that strong boundaries be maintained between fully committed insiders and all others. Only by maintaining the close ties with Jesus and one another (vv. 12-17) will they be safe.” (Malina and Rohrbaugh, page 234).
The text contains at least a couple of word-plays that are a challenge to replicate in an English translation. For example, in verse one the words for “real” and “vine” begin with the same letter. The closest I’ve come so far is to translate that as the “valid vine.” The words in verse two for “remove” and “prune” are the same except for a prefix on the latter word. I haven’t been able to capture that one in English yet.
In addition, the word for “prune” in verse two is related to the word for “clean” in verse three. Bruce notes the echo in this verse of John 13:10, where Jesus notes that the community is “clean, but not all.” He suggests that “Judas was the exception then, and in terms of the present parable, he is an unfruitful branch that has to be removed” (page 416).
There are also words that can escape notice in the English. In verse three, it is “The Word” that Jesus has been speaking to them that cleans the disciples. I suspect that we are to make an immediate connection with the Prologue of the Gospel and the note that the Word remains among us, full of grace and truth. In verse 7, we get a different and more everyday term for “words.” In this verse, Jesus talks about the actual speaking he has carried out with the disciples. They will remember those words most clearly after the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension.
Bruce asserts that there is no difference between “the word” and “the words” in this passage, except for the number. I’m not sure he is correct in that regard. That being said, he does offer a useful distinction. The Word, he proposes, is Jesus’ teaching in its entirety. The words “are the individual utterances which make up” the Word (page 417).
That being said, we have a clear connection to John 8:31-38. In particular, we hear Jesus tell the disciples, “If you remain in my Word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
And then there is the word “remain” or “abide.” It is the Greek word, meno. It is such a simple word. It is also one of the most important words in John’s Gospel. The Word becomes flesh and “dwells” among us. John’s gospel uses the term for “remain” or “abide.” It is, in the most literal translation, the verb for to “tabernacle among” a community. Some would translate it as to pitch a tent. Bruce translates it as “to find a lodging place.” I think the most accurate and evocative translation is something like “to make a home with” or “to be at home with” someone.
Bruce describes this imagery as a “parable,” but that seems to be stretching the idea of “parable.” I would suggest that it is much more of a metaphor, another “paroimia” like that of the Good Shepherd in John 10. It is quite nearly an allegory, since the correspondences in the imagery are one-to-one. The Father is the vinedresser. Jesus in the vine. The disciples are the branches. Their life together in apostolic ministry is the fruit of the vine. Osvaldo Vena suggests, in his workingpreacher.org commentary that this image “is not a parable nor an allegory but a mashal, a Semitic form that includes an image and its application to real life.”
The vine and the branches lead us into a treasury of imagery in the Hebrew Scriptures. We can begin with Psalm 80:8-19. The Psalmist describes Israel as a “vine” the Lord brought out of Egypt. It’s a typical practice in vine dressing to maintain and treasure the root stock of a favorite variety of grapes. Even after great destruction, the root can survive to be re-planted in new soil. That’s the image the Psalmist employs here. The Lord clears the ground, plants the stock, and it flourishes, filling the land.
The Psalm is written in light of the Babylonian Exile. The Psalmist wonders why, after all that careful tending and cultivation, the Lord allowed the walls of the vineyard (an allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem) to be broken down and for outsiders to ravage the vineyard. This is, by the way, the Psalm that Pope Leo quotes in his bull of excommunication against Luther at the start of the Reformation (but I digress).
The Psalmist prays that the Lord will look once again and “have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted” (verse 14). Even though the enemies have burned off the branches and cut down the trunk, there is still the chance for repentance and new life. “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts,” the Psalmist prays, “let your face shine, that we may be saved.”
The final word of the Psalm is the same root as “Jesus” in Hebrew and Aramaic. It’s not surprising that this psalm might result in extended meditation by the early church on the restoration of the Lord’s vine. We might think of the shoot that is to come out of the stump of Jesse in the prophet Micah. This is best understood in terms of the root stock of the vine. When it is replanted, it will produce a new shoot from the primordial root. Jesus is…the Vine.
Ezekiel 15 – Here we have Ezekiel’s vision of the “useless vine.” The Lord reminds the prophet that the “wood” of the vine is good for nothing unless it produces fruit. “Is wood taken from it to make anything”? the Lord asks the prophet. “Does one take a peg from it on which to hang any object?” The answer is a clear “no.” Wood from the grape vine produces fruit or finds the fire. And it’s not all that good even for burning.
The vision is a prelude to an oracle of judgment against Judah. “Like the wood of the vine among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel,” the Lord declares, “so I will give up the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (verse 6). The outcome of the Lord’s judgment will be a land that is desolate like a burned over vineyard “because they acted faithlessly” (verse 8). The Hebrew is emphatic here as the prophet notes they were “faithlessly unfaithful.”
That vision is expanded in chapter 17 and applied specifically the King of Judah. That is not, however, the final word even in Ezekiel. In chapter 19, the fate of the vine is rehearsed yet again. The vine is mishandled by the king, stripped of its fruit, burned in fury, and transplanted “into a dry and thirsty land” (Babylon). The oracle is a lamentation but note that the root stock has been preserved. We remember the words of the Psalmist, that new growth may come out of this destruction.
It is impossible to talk about grapes and vineyards in the New Testament without singing the Song of the Unproductive Vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7. Again, the Lord is a vine dresser who prepares for and plants a vineyard. After all that labor, the vine dresser expects a productive harvest. Instead, the vineyard produces wild grapes, unfit for harvest. The prophet draws a comparison between the unfruitful vineyard and “the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (verse 3).
In response to the unfaithfulness, the Lord will expose the vineyard to the ravages of the enemy. In particular, the vine shall be left to its own devices. It shall not be “pruned or hoed.” In fact, pruning is an exercise of care for the vine dresser, not a sort of punishment. That’s important to keep in mind as we read and interpret the imagery in John 15.
In addition, we get a prophetic description of the “fruit” expected from a faithful vineyard. The Lord expects justice and righteousness from a faithful vineyard. What the Lord receives from an unfaithful vineyard is bloodshed and cries of anguish from the vulnerable.
The injustice the prophet sees is then described in the next oracle in Isaiah 5, where the Lord condemns those “who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you…” A symptom of that injustice is that vineyards are not productive, and fields return minimal harvests. Bearing fruit is a major concern in John 15 and connects to the Isaiah 5 oracles in this regard.
John’s community was under significant stress when this gospel account was written. On the one hand, as Osvaldo Vena notes, “there seems to have been a problem in the community with people’s loyalty and faithfulness which the evangelist is trying to address.” On the other hand, there is a pruning necessary if the healthy branches are to bear more fruit. This could easily be read as exclusive, judgmental, and even sectarian, Vena notes. Is there anything for us now in this text?
Vena notes that it is our intimate connection to Jesus’ words – his gospel message – that nourishes the church to bear fruit. In our time, we may need to put much more energy and effort into that intimate connection. That connection, however, is not merely an individual one. Instead, branches grow together and are entwined with one another. The intimacy with Jesus and his words produces an intimacy with other branches of the vine.
Bearing fruit “is not about judgment,” writes Gennifer Benjamin Brooks in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “it is about growth. Because as the dead branches are removed, those that remain adhered to the vine become stronger and contribute to the health of the vine. That is a message that in this time carries much urgency,” she concludes, “for the contemporary church in all its divisions for the sake of the diversity that is the true Body of Christ.”
References and Resources
Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John: A Verse-by-Verse Exposition. Kingsley Books. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.