Jesus has always been well known for the stories and parables and pictures that He taught with. They were vivid and lively, current and meaningful to His listeners. The image of the vine and branches is well known throughout Christendom. If Jesus were to teach the same truth today, I can’t help but wonder what type of imagery He might have used.
God my Father is an office manager of an investment firm. I am the wall street journal. You are the investment brokers. If you remain in me, that is, if you remain current; then you will produce great profit and make sound decisions. God the office manager will ride and berate and cajole those brokers who are producing, to make them go further; while the unproductive brokers He will cast off into the unemployment line … Well, maybe this isn’t the best image in today’s financial climate …
So perhaps He might have said: God my Father is an html design specialist. I am the world wide web, and you are the individual home pages. God the html design specialist is concerned with results, therefore He will tweak and rework any home page that is showing success but He is ruthless in deleting the ones that only take up server space. Any home page that remains connected to me, the World Wide Web, will be successful and bring in browsers … this is better, but only if you are a computer nerd.
Perhaps the original picture is still the best. Most of us do not have vineyards in our back yards, but just about everyone knows at least a little bit about how things grow. I myself am no gardener, my thumbs are about as white as they get; but even I know a few things. If you want plants to grow, they have to be in good soil; they need water and nutrients, and you have to watch out for the root system. If you damage or split the roots of a plant it will most likely die.
That is why Jesus uses such a picture as the vine and branches in instructing His disciples. The Israelites also knew about roots. For the most part Israel was an agriculturally based society. They grew a lot of grapes. The vine and vineyard were common symbols in the Jewish culture. The vine was a symbol not only one of productivity but also, of the nation of Israel itself. In Isaiah 5: 1-7 the prophet paints the picture of Israel as a vineyard and God as the vinedresser (or farmer). Unfortunately, it is not a pretty picture. Israel, the vineyard, is unfaithful. All it can produce is bad fruit. God the farmer has put all of his time and energy into His vineyard but He cannot tolerate its lack of productivity any more. Therefore, He tears down all the hedges surrounding it, abandons it – leaves it for the wild animals to devour.
Why was the vineyard of Israel only able to produce bad fruit? The problem had to do with the roots. But it was not as if they were suffering from a case of root rot. Their roots were actually pretty strong. Israel was (and still is) a nation dominated by a sense of ethnic and spiritual identity. Most of the Jews of Jesus day could trace back their family history by clan and tribe all the way to the patriarchs themselves. They proudly looked to their roots.
That is precisely what became part of the problem. They felt that because they had such roots they were automatically saved. Because Abraham was their great great great great grandfather many generations removed; many of them felt they had a free ticket to do whatever they wanted. Abraham had bought them freedom, a freedom the could claim through their blood line. In that very attitude, however, they had cut themselves off from their very own roots. How? They had lost the very things that had made their national roots so strong … faith in God. Abraham had great faith in God. That is what saved him, not a blood line. Having cut themselves off from their roots, the Israelites could do nothing but produce bad fruit.
Just looking around the world today it would not be hard to say that we too have a problem with rotten fruit. What do we see all around us? Hatred, despair, wars, impatience, greed, anger, lies, lust, excessiveness. These are the bad fruit we struggle with. Some seem big and some seem small, or less hurtful. Some we have more problems with than others; but we all stumble. We all struggle against bad fruit. The fruit of the flesh, and of sin. As far as vineyards go, this modern world of ours must look like a weed infested, over-run, scrawny, half dead thing with grapes to be seen only here or there in pathetic little bundles, half shriveled even on the vine.
Strangely enough, when confronted by the obvious problems around us, the world would also have us look to our roots – but not for a solution as much as for an excuse! It would have us look to those roots and blame them for our present circumstances. If you have problems with this or that, look back to when you were growing up, you will find the reason there. Can’t get ahead in life? It is because of the enabling behaviours you were exposed to in your development that entrenched destructive behaviours within yourself. It is like imagining a branch pulling itself off of the tree only to see itself wither and die. As it becomes worse and worse off it turns back to the tree and accuses it of having been infected with caterpillars thus causing the branch its current state of distress. Not looking for the reason, just an excuse.
God does not tolerate excuses, however. He does not put up with rotten fruit or unproductive branches. They only last so long before they fall cut from the vine, to be gathered up and burned as the waste they are. God does not tolerate sin, no matter what excuse we might try to come up with. The punishment for sin is nothing less than the fires of hell. This is very obviously stated in our text. It is a point the disciples could hardly have missed.
The imagery Jesus uses is powerful stuff. But it is not meant to be a message of despair. It is a message of greatest hope! The key is in verse three where Jesus declares to his disciples that they are already clean, they need not worry about the cutting and burning He is talking about. The word for cleaned is the same as pruned. They have been pruned already but remain on the vine. How is that possible? Were they not sinful too? Of course they were. They had been cleansed through the Words that Jesus spoke to them. The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God. It works to bring and strengthen faith in the hearer. It is this faith that actually grafts us to Jesus as a Farmer grafts branches of one tree to another.
But this grafting is only one of the jobs that God oversees or does in his vineyard. Through the Spoken Word and through Baptism He is continually grafting new branches to the vine of Christ, but he does not let them out of His sight once it is done. He continues to tend each of the branches every day. As the text pictures it, God the Farmer trims and prunes the productive branches to make them even more so. Now this is not some sort of reckless hack job that we’re talking about; blade slashing left and right with total abandonment. This is very precise. It is more like the picture of a man with a bonsai tree. Many of the best bonsai artists will take their entire lifetime to trim and shape and prune a single tree. He may wait years to make a single cut. So it is with the Father. His cuts are lovingly, and painstakingly made to remove unwanted growth that would otherwise take away the branch’s strength to produce fruit.
Another comforting picture from this text is that Jesus himself is the true vine, not Israel, not us. Jesus is our sure root. Like a vine with its roots immovably planted in the ground, Jesus will remain firmly rooted in our lives. He will never abandon us. He provides us with stability and support in whatever weather that might befall us in this life. It is He that is faithful in providing everything we need as branches for life and growth. He draws up food and water to sustain us. The food is His Holy Word, His Own Body and His own Blood. These are given to each of us without limit or conditions, for the forgiveness of our sins. He gives us the water of life in Baptism, as we are grafted into Him and all that He accomplished for us upon the cross. Through all of these is given one more gift, the gift of faith. It is this faith that enables us to produce good fruit. It is the work of the Holy Spirit within us that enables us to have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the fruits that are pleasing to God, whether shown in big ways or little ways.
On this Sunday morning, I urge you once again to go home and read this text again. I urge you to look to your roots. However you may wish to picture it: An office of investment brokers, a computer specialist or a loving and careful gardener; there you will find God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit all at work to strengthen, support, nourish, and sustain you in everything you do and in everything you will face. He is the vine and you are the branches … remain in Him and you will bear much fruit.