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Abide in Me - The Vine and the Branches

by Brant Pitre May 15, 2019 0 Comments


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I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.

Alright, so let’s stop there; there’s so much going on in the passage, we could do a whole video just on these verses, but let me just highlight a few elements for you here that are important to highlight. Number one, the context, I know I said it already but I’m going to stress it again, Jesus is making this analogy of vine and branches not just any time during his public ministry, he's doing it at the Last Supper. And, the reason that is important, well one reason that is important, is because during the Last Supper, we know from the Synoptics, he actually took a chalice of wine and said, “this is my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.” So in that context of having instituted the Eucharist, which involves bread and wine, it's not inconsequential that he's going to compare himself to a grapevine, right. So this isn't just any kind of vine, this is a grapevine, which was one of the staples of ancient Israelite agriculture, so it would have been well known. So the context here is, first and foremost, it’s sacramental right. So when Jesus starts to talk about a vine and fruit, which would be a grape vine and grapes, the context, the immediate context, is his just having identified a chalice with the fruit of the grape, or the blood of the grape as the Bible calls it, with his own blood. So that Eucharistic context needs to be kept in mind, that's the first thing.

The second thing is the broader Jewish context of this analogy of the vine and the branches. Jesus did this during Passover, that’s when he instituted the Last Supper. And during Passover, the Jews would pilgrimage, not just into the city of Jerusalem, but they also had to go into the temple and offer sacrifice, the sacrifice of a lamb. I go through this in the book on the Jewish roots of the Eucharist in a lot more detail. But one of the things I didn't mention in that book, at least I don’t think I did, was that in the temple over the archway leading into the temple, there was a very visible decoration. There was a very visible sacred image, and that was a golden vine. It was surrounding the archway leading into the temple. And Josephus, the First century Jewish historian who was also a priest in the temple before it was destroyed, actually gives us a description of this golden vine that was above the entryway into the temple. And this is what he says:

The holy temple.... was covered with gold, and through it the first edifice was visible to a spectator without in all its grandeur and the surroundings of the inner gate all gleaming with gold fell beneath his eye... It had, moreover, above it those golden vines, from which depended grape clusters as tall as a man...

That’s Josephus’ book The Jewish War, book five, paragraph 207-211. So notice, if you were a Jewish pilgrim like the disciples going into the temple on Passover in order to offer your lamb, as you pass through the entryway, one of the most visible things you'd see was this giant grapevine covered in pure gold, with clusters of grapes as big as a man, right. Which, by the way, is an allusion to the book of Joshua, when the Israelites went to the promised land and they saw the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, carrying clusters of grapes as big as a man. In other words, it was a land flowing with milk and honey. It was a land of super abundant produce, right. It was a fruitful and blessed land. So the temple here is like a little icon of the holy land, it’s like a little icon of the promised land. And so a vine and its branches is something every Jew would have associated with the temple. So in that context of Passover and Last Supper, when Jesus says I am the true vine, implicit in that adjective is a comparison with the earthly temple in Jerusalem and with the golden vine of the Jerusalem temple, right. So what he's describing is himself as the true vine of the true temple. It’s just one more instance of Jesus identifying himself as the dwelling place of God on Earth and as the one whose very body was going to replace the new temple, okay.

So with that in mind, keep going with the analogy. Jesus is saying he is the vine, his Father is the vine dresser, and his disciples are the branches off of the vine, which are supposed to bear fruit, right. Because that’s why you plant a grapevine, you want it to bear fruit, you want it to make clusters of grapes. And Jesus takes this analogy and he runs with it, it’s really fascinating here to look at the different kinds of branches. So he describes here two different kinds of branches on this grapevine that he himself is. First there are the fruitless branches and then there are the fruitful branches. Let’s look at each one. First, with regard to the fruitless branches, he says those who do not bear fruit, right, two things happen to them. First, they are cut off from Christ. It says here that the vine dresser takes them away because they do not abide in him. Second, they are burned. He says the branches are cut off and then they are thrown into the fire. Now you don't have to be a biblical scholar to figure out what this symbol means, because whenever Jesus uses the imagery of fire in the gospels, he's frequently doing it with reference to the fire of Gehenna, to the place of the damned, right. So he's saying on the one hand if you are a member of his body, if you're a branch and you're part of the vine, if you're one of his disciples, but you don't keep his word, you don't obey his commandments, you don't actually bear fruit, then God, the vine dresser, the Father, is going to do to you what any vine dresser would do to a branch that’s not bearing fruit. He’s going to cut it off and throw it into the fire, right. So if you've ever gardened or tried to grow trees in an orchard, you know what this is like. For example, in my yard I have some Satsuma trees, it's a citrus tree that grows here in Louisiana, very fruitfully. Well especially after the winter comes there’s certain branches that are just dead, right, or if you’ve got a certain branch that isn’t bearing any fruit, then you're not just going to leave that branch on the tree because it’s going to sap the life out of the other branches, it can have a negative effect on the entire tree. So if a branch isn't bearing any fruit, what you do? You cut it off and once you cut it off you don't keep it, right, because it's dead, it’s no longer part of the tree. You’re going to take it and you’re just going to dispose of it, or as Jesus says, it’ll be thrown into the fire. So Jesus is using that as an image for disciples who don't keep his commandments, for disciples who don't remain in him and who don't bear fruit. Ultimately they'll be cut off and they’ll be thrown into the fire.

By contrast, there are the fruitful branches. Now notice what he says about the fruitful branches. In verse two he says every branch that does bear fruit he prunes that it may bear more fruit, right. Now that's important. What does pruning mean? How can the Father prune us? Well again if a person is gardening or working with a tree in an orchard, sometimes a branch will bear fruit but in order to get it to bear more fruit you will cut off some of the excess, you’ll prune it, right. Anything that's not actually necessary you cut off and it gives more of the sap to the fruit, so that it is able to bear more fruit. So these excess elements are cut off so that the fruit can be more plentiful. Another aspect of this branch is that it abides in the vine, it abides in the main vine, and that apart from that main vine it can't do anything. Again this is obvious if you've ever gardened. Let's say you're pruning your tree and you accidentally cut off a branch that was in fact good. It wasn't dry, it was fine, it was bearing fruit, but you make a mistake, and I’ve done this before, you know, slip of the clippers and boom, there it goes. Well once that branch is cut off from the vine guess what, it’s not going to bear any fruit, it's going to die, right. Because apart from the vine, apart from the trunk, it can't bear any fruit. Everything it has, all the life that it produces, all the fruit that it produces, comes from the vine itself.

So what Jesus is trying to do here is teach the disciples the principle, the necessity, of remaining in him, of abiding in him. If he is truly the vine and they are the branches, that any fruit that they bear really isn't going to be from them. It's going to be from him and from the Father that will prune them, so that they can bear more fruit. So this is a beautiful image here of the life of Christian discipleship and also of apostolic activity, of evangelization, of bearing fruit for the nature of the kingdom. Jesus basically gives us the essential principle for any kind of apostolic work or evangelization, and that's this, unless you abide in me you can't do anything, you can't bear any fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing he says. And I think that's a really important principle for anyone who is engaged in work in the church. Whether it be some kind of ministry, some form of evangelization, whether it be catechism, or CCD, or confirmation prep, whatever it is, you teach in a Catholic school, whatever apostolic activity you might do, it’s critical to realize that unless you do it in Christ it will not bear any fruit for the kingdom of God. Apart from him, you can do as much as a branch cut off of the tree can do, which is nothing. I think this is important to emphasize because I know from my own experience sometimes I can be tempted to think, well apart from Christ I can do some things well but with Christ I can do even better. That’s not what Jesus says. He doesn't say apart from me you can do some things and you need me to kind of beef it up. What he says is apart from me you can do nothing, because the work of the vine dresser and the work of the vine is supernatural. He's talking about evangelization, he’s talking about the spread of the kingdom of God, which is essentially supernatural in character.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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