“I Am the True Vine”, Eastern Orthodox Icon 16th century, Byzantine & Christian Museum, Athens, Greece.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” John 15:1.
Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
The image of the vine is found in several places in the Old Testament, indeed Psalm 80 has the whole of the Chosen People as a vine, planted by God in the Promised Land where “its roots went deep, and it spread out over the whole land” (v9). But then, the psalm states, everything changed, and “now everyone passing by can steal its grapes; wild hogs trample it down and wild animals feed on it” (vv.12-13). The other OT references often have similarly doom-laden images of the vine, for example, Jeremiah 2:1: “I planted you like a choice vine from the very best seed. But look what you have become! You are like a rotten, worthless vine.” But in today’s gospel, having said “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower”, Jesus paints a picture of a living, fruitful vine: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (John 15:7-8). And remember Jesus’ words at the Last Supper as recorded in Mark, having stated that the cup of wine is now the cup of his blood, he says: “Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (14:25). Jesus’ image of the vine and its grapes could hardly be more positive, more fruitful you might say. He seems to state that he is the new Israel, the new vine, fruitful and strong, always remembering that the Father, the owner of the vine, “takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit”. So, unlike the vine imagery of the Old Testament, the new vine, embedded in Christ, will remain fruitful by means of the care and attention of the Father, which also stands as a reminder to us all. To be a follower of the Lord, we must labor in hope and trust.
Today’s first reading is a clear illustration of that demand. Paul, still known as Saul, returned to Jerusalem a changed man after his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. Not many knew about that, however, so they were scared to death of him. He had tried to destroy the new community believing in Jesus as the Messiah, locking them up, perhaps even killing them. They quickly realized how he had changed, and rallied round him and even protected him from others who clearly also saw how he had changed, and tried to kill him as a traitor. He was spirited away by his new friends to safer places where he might continue his work in the vineyard…. The second reading paints a more philosophical picture of devoted obedience to Christ’s word and that we “do what pleases him”. Hence the vineyard remains bountiful, nourished by Jesus himself, and tended by our Father. Completing the Trinitarian imagery, we are told that “we know that he [Jesus] remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us”.
So each one of us is reminded that we have to do our bit in maintaining the fruitfulness of Christ’s vine, making sure that our words and actions demonstrate that we are real, true and active Christians, acting out of love of God, neighbor and self. And now to something which comes as completely new to me, something I can hardly believe in fact, after researching today’s Scriptures. And it ties in so well with today’s image of vineyards, grapes and wine. It is that the best wines come from the poorest soils! You don’t believe it? – read this, but be aware of its earthy language… And so, Jesus’ claim to be the vine must mean he produces the best possible wine. But that can only come with the poor vine branches (us) doing our best with whatever we have been given, even amid the meanest and poorest and most difficult conditions (and that goes for all of us at times, no matter how rich or poor, well bred or low born and so on). But the climate has to be right – meaning our own attitudes and belief systems have to be present, connected with the Lord, his teachings and his example. We will, as a consequence, produce the very best grapes, the fruit of our labors and His grace! Hence, although life might be challenging, tough, awful, overwhelming at times, we are Jesus’ branches, and the fruit of our labors will be superb if we stick with it. What a message of hope, because we know that we are not alone in that – we are branches connected to none other than the Son of God, whose Father helps us, prunes us even, and whose Spirit is our strength and perseverance. And finally after all this, Scripture does seem to approve of a decent glass of wine with no guilt but certainly with common sense.
The Wedding at Cana, Jesus Turns Water into Wine 14th Century , Visoki Dečani Monastery, Deçan, Kosovo.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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