Jesus said to his disciples: I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts away every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit. But he trims clean every branch that does produce fruit, so that it will produce even more fruit. John 15:1-2 CEV
We don’t live in Jesus’ agricultural world, but we instinctively grasp the central element in his metaphor of the vine. To live, one must stay connected to the source of life. Jesus is the source of life for the community of believers.
The 1st century inhabitants of Jerusalem would have had an even deeper understanding of Jesus’ figure of speech. The vineyard was the lifeblood of Judean agriculture; wine is mentioned 521 times in the Bible (well, at least by one count). More importantly, the vineyard was an important symbol in Israel’s self-understanding.
Israel knew that it was God’s vineyard. Judean coins bore the image of a vine, symbolizing Israel as God’s vineyard. Even the holy temple was adorned with a vine that represented Israel’s existence as the people of God.
These images were rooted in dramatic imagery employed on several occasions by the Biblical authors. The prophet Isaiah, for example, said:
I will sing a song about my friend’s vineyard that was on the side of a fertile hill. My friend dug the ground, removed the stones, and planted the best vines. He built a watchtower and dug a pit in rocky ground for pressing the grapes. He hoped they would be sweet, but bitter grapes were all it produced. Listen, people of Jerusalem and of Judah! You be the judge of me and my vineyard. What more could I have done for my vineyard? I hoped for sweet grapes, but bitter grapes were all that grew. Now I will let you know what I am going to do. I will cut down the hedge and tear down the wall. My vineyard will be trampled and left in ruins. It will turn into a desert, neither pruned nor hoed; it will be covered with thorns and briars. I will command the clouds not to send rain. I am the LORD All-Powerful! Israel is the vineyard, and Judah is the garden I tended with care. I had hoped for honesty and for justice, but dishonesty and cries for mercy were all I found. (Isaiah 5:1-7 CEV)
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus used the same image to convey a similar message of judgment.
Jesus told the chief priests and leaders to listen to this story: A land owner once planted a vineyard. He built a wall around it and dug a pit to crush the grapes in. He also built a lookout tower. Then he rented out his vineyard and left the country. When it was harvest time, the owner sent some servants to get his share of the grapes. But the renters grabbed those servants. They beat up one, killed one, and stoned one of them to death. He then sent more servants than he did the first time. But the renters treated them in the same way. Finally, the owner sent his own son to the renters, because he thought they would respect him. But when they saw the man’s son, they said, “Someday he will own the vineyard. Let’s kill him! Then we can have it all for ourselves.” So they grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Jesus asked, “When the owner of that vineyard comes, what do you suppose he will do to those renters?” (Matthew 21:33-40 CEV)
But judgment is not at the heart of Jesus’ use of the metaphor in John.
The first noticeable feature in John 15 is that Jesus identifies himself as the true vine. Jesus sees himself as the root of a renewed and restored people of God. The people connected to Jesus will fulfill God’s purpose for Israel. In Jesus, the vine fulfills its function. It produces good fruit; there is no need for judgment.
Secondly, John 15 focuses on the care of the gardener and the nourishment of the vine. God patiently, expertly tends the vineyard. The gardener wants the vine to be healthy and produce good fruit. Every action is directed toward the good of the vine. If branches are cut off, it is only because they are permanently unproductive. Even productive branches are pruned to produce more fruit.
Jesus’ description aptly fits actual grape vines. The vines produce green canes in the summer that mature into woody canes in the second year. It is the two year old canes that produce fruit. After the second year, the canes produce no more grapes and are subject to pruning. Furthermore, fruiting canes produce too many buds for quality fruit to result. Excess buds must also be pruned away so that the vine’s nourishment can concentrate in the remaining grapes.
As you can see, it would be difficult to create an allegory out of the actual practice of viniculture. I don’t think Jesus is saying, “God will get rid of the old guys cause they’re not much use anymore. And he will even sacrifice some of the young ones so that the remaining folks can prosper.”
Jesus is not really talking about pruning his church of the deadwood or even about cutting away the sinful parts of our lives. No, Jesus says, “You are already clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” All that remains for disciples is to abide in the true vine.
But that precisely is the point. Those who choose not to abide are like the dried branches that the gardener prunes away. They are dead. They’re not good for anything but the fire. One can understand why the gardener would disconnect the deadwood from the vine, but why would anyone choose to disconnect themselves from the source of life?