“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just 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. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (John 15:1-8 – NRSV)
This is the seventh and last of John’s so-called “I am” (egō eimi) sayings. See also “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35); “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12); “I am the gate” (John 10:7, 9); “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14); “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25); “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6); “I am the true vine” (John 15:1, 5).
The metaphor of the vine is very common in the ancient world. However, it has particular usage in the Hebrew Scriptures, signifying the house of Israel. Significantly, the reference is always a negative one, criticizing Israel for their failure to produce good fruit. See for example Isaiah 5:1–7: “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” In Jeremiah 2:21 we hear the lament: “Yet I
planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?” We are very familiar with the cry of Psalm 80:8-13: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches; it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River. Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.”
As with Jesus’ reference to himself as “the good shepherd” (John 10:11 & 14), where the contrast is with the bad shepherds, so with his reference to himself as “the true vine”, where the contrast is with Israel that has
failed to be a true vine.
We find something similar in the use of the metaphor in the Synoptic Gospels – see Matthew 21:23–41; Mark 12:1–9; Luke 20:9–16; Matthew 20:1–16; 21:28–32; Luke 13:6–9. Unlike John, these parables all have narrative plot, but like John the vineyard, or people connected with the vineyard, portray Israel, or a part of Israel, being far less fruitful than ought to have been the case.
It is abundantly clear from John’s text, that Jesus expects there to be fruit from the vine. That fruit will be forthcoming if the disciple remains firmly grounded in Jesus Christ.
A very rich theme in John’s Gospel is expressed in the Greek verb meno. It is generally translated as “abide” but can mean “stay” or “remain” or “make your home” or even “continue”.
We first meet this verb in chapter 1. The two disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus where he is staying (see John 1:38-39). Jesus invites them to “come and see”. They in turn stay with him. In chapter 6 the concept
is deepened when Jesus speaks of a mutual abiding when we eat the bread of life (see John 6:56). Then in today’s Gospel the word is used no less than eight times to emphasize the permanent communion of life
between Jesus and his disciples. A similar theme is found in John 14:23 where Jesus promises that “we (ie the Father and Jesus) will come and make our home with” those who keep his word. And of course there is the well-known text of John 8:32: “If you continue (meno) in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
The word meno implies commitment and fidelity, hospitality and care, permanence and trust. Used of Jesus it implies the deepest fulfilment of the great promise, “I am with you!” What is then most striking about the use
of this word is that it applies to us. In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus says: “Abide in me as I abide in you”.
Jesus invites his disciples into the communion of life he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit. To take up this invitation is the very essence of Christian discipleship. The fruit that is to be found in the true disciple is the fruit of the God-life in which we participate. The disciple if preeminently one whose being is the home of God.
“It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a common-place realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Doubleday, 1989, 157.)