~ The Fruit Comes Later ~
Although divinely inspired and timeless, the Scriptures are still written in the cultural context of the writers. To understand fully Jesus’ parables we need to educate ourselves on sheep raising, land ownership, family life, ethnic relationships and the customs of His time on earth.
Vineyards, for example, were not organized in rows of stakes. Grape vines were typically very large and old. Since they tended to trail along large expanses of ground, tall growing trees were planted in the vineyard so the vines could climb them for more space and sunlight. The vines with a heavy load of fruit needed propping up off the ground out of reach of hungry little animals. Care was taken so these heavy branches would not break off the main vine.
Wild grapes from unattended vines would creep into the productive vineyard. Small and sour, these grapes with shallow roots would draw from the vitality of the cultivated vines and needed to be cut out. Also pruned were the wandering shoots of the productive branches that weakened their strength by growing more wood fiber than the treasured grapes needed for the life of the people.
Even as a boy, Jesus would have been familiar with Israel’s funeral song recorded by the prophet Ezekiel: “Your mother was like a grapevine…It had a lot of fruit and many branches…They were used to make scepters for kings…Its strong branches broke off. They withered and were burned…Fire has destroyed its fruit. It no longer has any strong branches that could be used as a king’s scepter” (Ezekiel 19:10,11,14, GW).
Later, Jesus took this grapevine metaphor to teach what is true and everlasting and will never need a funeral dirge. He explained, “I am the true vine, and my Father takes care of the vineyard. He removes every one of my branches that doesn’t produce fruit. He also prunes every branch that does produce fruit to make it produce more fruit… Live in me and I will live in you. A branch cannot produce any fruit by itself. It has to stay attached to the vine…Whoever doesn’t live in me is thrown away, like a branch and dries up. Branches like this are gathered, thrown into a fire and burned” (John 15:1-2,4,6-7, GW).
We are lovingly invited to be a fruitful branch in the True Vine attended by the same Vineyard Caretaker Who created all things. Of course it was well understood by Jesus’ listeners that some lifeless branches must be gathered up. There must be pruning and fire in the vineyard of the Creator. Despite how it looks to the “save the branches” zealots who are passionately ignorant of agriculture, the pruning (cutting) and burning does not constitute evil in this vineyard.
They are mandates of the True Vine and how fruit is grown. These commands are not to make life difficult, for Jesus said, “I have told you this so that my joy in you may be complete and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11, NIV). What He said leading to full joy was, “As the Father loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (John 15:9-10, NIV).
Let us not mistake this love as conditional, like “If you do what I say I will love you.” No, these are enabling commands. By doing what He says we are able to remain in His love, in His vine, in Him and He in us. John explains how “there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18, NIV). If we remain firmly attached to the Vine, and welcome the pruning as loving care, we have no fear of punishment as we feel the supreme joy of His love surging through our beings in the same way God the Father’s love surged through God the Son, our Christ. Jesus tells us we are branches who need to be firmly attached to Him, lovingly and fully fed by the Vine, the true and everlasting One, rooted into the very heart of Yahweh, the God of our salvation. His commands are to be treasured as the Vineyard Operating Manual. The longest Psalm, 119, praises and embraces His decrees and commands as priceless treasures to be examined, embraced and used. They are the parable “talents” or treasures the good servant invested and joyfully could offer back in double to his master in faithfulness.
In the vineyard economy there is an important sequence too often overlooked. “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples…I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (John 15:7-8, 16b, NIV). Christ is teaching how the abundance of spiritual fruit (obtained through pruning) is a sign to others of our discipleship. He is also saying the power of our prayers is predicated on our fruit bearing, not the reverse.
Jesus often used planting and harvest metaphors. There is a natural rhythm to transformative metanoia over a lifetime which we see in Jesus’ own daily routine of intense public service (everlasting fruit production) and His customary retreats into the solitude of the Father’s communion in prayer by night, times when even His inner circle of apostles didn’t know where He was and looked for Him in the mornings. We are always living or abiding in God, without Whom we can do nothing. But the rhythm of seed to harvest, day to night, winter to summer, is a reflection of the rhythms of contemplation to action, unconscious abiding to conscious abiding, solitude to community, faith to works, prayer to manifestation, silence to speech, in the continued presence of God.
Apart from the agricultural ones, another metaphor used to describe a spiritual reality is “the Body of Christ,” His people, His church. Christ is the Head, we are His hands, feet, and heart. If you accidently kick someone, that person doesn’t take offense at your foot, but rather to you, your head. Likewise, when the foot of the Body of Christ hurts someone, Christ gets the blame and shame. It is well known how close Mahatma Gandhi came to embracing Christ, but remarked how Christians “are so unlike your Christ.” Many have been bewildered by Christians besides Gandhi. We proclaim Christ to be the Way, Truth and Life while too frequently going our own ways and squabbling about Pontius Pilate’s own question, “What is truth?” Especially in the West, where real, bloody persecution has not yet assaulted Christians, we even bewilder ourselves.
Part of the reason, I contend, has to do with the overlooking of Christ’s clear teachings about vines and grapes. In many churches, a new convert or devotee to Christ experiences a pressure to show the fruit of his or her discipleship. There are pressures to “get involved,” “be a good witness,” to do things “for Christ.” While these are important aspects of discipleship, the first emphasis of Christ is to live in Him, to be that young branch well rooted in the true Vine, to be that body part that is obedient to the Head rather than trying to do its own thing.
Christ was also clear on what it takes to live in Him: “Unless the seed dies, the plant can’t grow…Deny yourself…Lose your life…Carry your cross…Seek first the kingdom…Obey my commandments…Be born again…Enter the narrow gate of the few…”
Mr. Gandhi, that’s what you probably noticed about many Christians. We skip that part of living selflessly and fully in our Christ. So sorry our branches are often so bare of heavy, succulent, nourishing fruit for you to feast upon. God continues to sanctify us.
Our Creator, let us welcome your pruning shears. Let us trust You with them infinitely more than we ever trusted a surgeon with a scalpel. We are Yours. Do with us what You want. You are Love. You are our All. There is a fifth Gospel account, us. May we always be true to the other four, always living in You and You in us. Let us bear the succulent fruit of the Good News, the Vine of Christ without Whom we can do nothing. Amen, meaning, in Truth.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
Weekly Reflections © July 6, 2002
"God's Word" is a copyrighted work of God's Word to the Nations Bible Society. Quotations are used by permission.
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