I am not a grower of vines. Neither am I a sower of seed, a herder of sheep, nor a fisher of fish. But these images—vine grower, farmer, shepherd, and fisherman—Jesus uses to describe himself or the kingdom of God, and by extension, the community of his disciples sent to proclaim to the nations God’s message of repentance and compassion and new life. These images clearly highlight specific functions of Jesus’ personal ministry.
He called himself the Good Shepherd who guides and watches over the flock of God’s sheep, leading them to green pastures and refreshing waters, protecting and defending them from unreliable hired workers, wild beasts, and bandits, seeking out the straying and the lost. He invited the fishermen Peter and Andrew, James and John to come follow him and told them he would make them fishers of people, clearly playing on the nature of their livelihoods, presumably to draw others into the fold of his disciples and witnesses for the building up of the kingdom. He referred to himself as the sower of seed in the field, the seed being the Word of God, and the field being the world.
And in today’s gospel, he referred to himself as the true vine and his Father as the vine grower. Incidentally, he only made passing reference to his own background as a carpenter or a builder of things, the one expertise he could rightly claim on his resume when he spoke about seeking the kingdom of God and building on a foundation of solid rock instead of shifting sand, and that he would build his church on the rock that is Peter’s faith. Instead, he appropriated images and the wisdom drawn from other livelihoods to illustrate some important aspect of his mission.
So, when we read in today’s gospel about vine growing and bearing fruit and pruning, we might focus rather on aspects of Jesus’ mission and the mission he entrusted to the church. I have only in recent years successfully grown things in dirt in clay pots on my back porch. It has been such a struggle I have taken to referring to myself as a natural herbicide. So ordinarily I shy away from having to care for live plants. Any success I’ve had I credit good weather and rich topsoil and commercial fertilizers and my dog taking no interest whatsoever in plants. I have two thriving kiwi plants that have miraculously come back every spring for 6 years. So far, I have yet to see any flowers or fruit. But I have been known to wait patiently for other things. So, what’s another couple of years really?
Now in the course of growing things in dirt so they bear good fruit someday, there’s the usual regimen of adequate sunshine and water, protection from disease and natural predators, and pruning. I have little experience with pruning. And last fall after my plants dropped their leaves, I decided I would prune. I have since realized I may have pruned too soon. And I feared I had done more damage than just letting them be. So, I was relieved when I saw new growth a few weeks ago. Who knows, this might be the year. Or I will have to wait some more. It’s not like I’ve suffered any real loss or inconvenience.
In today’s gospel, Jesus claims to be the true vine and his Father the vine grower. He tells us we are branches on the vine, and it makes perfect sense that branches remain attached to the vine in order to live and bear fruit. Consequently, we must remain attached to Jesus for our own survival and prosperity. The image though has its limits. But that’s the nature of metaphors and analogies. They invite us to dive deeper into the nourishing mystery and feast abundantly on food to nourish the soul.
Plants require no reflection on deep truths in order to survive. Animals have a capacity for wonder and curiosity. They seem capable of self-awareness and deep thought. But beyond that it’s hard to say. They will eventually work around or adapt to changing circumstances. But they seem incapable of venturing beyond instinctive behavior or intentionally going out of their way to achieve outcomes that don’t benefit themselves directly. Intelligent life by contrast is capable of deliberately setting aside personal comfort and advantage for the sake of someone else’s comfort and advantage. So, when we stop to consider the vine and its branches, we can understand how branches need to remain attached to the vine for their own survival and prosperity. And yet branches depend on other branches because the vine is also sustained and nourished by all the branches attached to it. Branches on the vine sustain and nourish each other. So, it makes sense that members of the Christian community intentionally and actively sustain and nourish one another with a view to sustaining and nourishing the larger church collectively.
Now pruning the vine is a limited metaphor. Plants might benefit from pruning. But do not try it on animals and people. Would we better understand pruning to mean overcoming setbacks and enduring challenges? But pruning is done strategically on healthy branches for the purpose of increasing productivity. Just lopping off branches indiscriminately might produce little or no benefit or even cause harm. So if we mean to increase the church’s productivity, not so much in terms of acquiring more material wealth or gaining popularity, but in extending God’s compassion and peace, and healing broken spirits and shattered relationships, and instilling hope and renewal for the present and generations to come, and inviting even more people to experience spiritual fulfillment and the joy and beauty of God’s enduring love, it makes sense to encourage and inspire those already successful in ministry and who have energy and determination to reach out and give joyful witness to treasures they have found in our life together.
I have noticed that plants like to do each spring exactly what they did the year before. Animals and people fall into patterns of behavior when they find what they like and decide they’re comfortable. People who are contagiously joyful and thankful are often motivated to share what gives them joy and what makes them thankful. It’s their way of inspiring others and nurturing God’s life within them. The early church was a mix of people who were deathly fearful of their enemies, people who were content in the practice of their faith, and people who were inspired to proclaim the gospel to those who have not yet heard it. Persecutions tend to immobilize the fearful and the comfortable. But they instead inspired hard workers and new members to explore exciting new avenues and creative approaches. And even when life settled into a peaceful routine, they shook things up themselves by opening doors and windows to let in some fresh air and bright sunlight.
Jesus said we are already pruned so we can bear more fruit. I say we are in constant need of pruning. Pruning won’t change the fearful and the comfortable. But if you want inspiration and innovation and enthusiasm and success, go find those who are already busy and who enjoy what they do. Just doing what you’ve always done before will ensure your survival, maybe. But productivity comes from pruning. Are you ready to be pruned?
Rolo B Castillo © 2021