Summary: An exposition of the vine and vinedresser imagery in Jesus teaching in John 15:1-10
Vines and branches in the Father’s Vineyard
The Psalm appointed for today is a long, enthusiastic summons to praise the God who made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. As such, it is a fitting response to what David tells us in the 19th Psalm: The heavens are declaring the glory of God, and the earth shows forth the works of his hands. Everything that God has made is stamped with his glory. It is these thoughts which were likely on the Lord’s mind when he explained to Nicodemus how God worked to redeem sinners. And, when Nicodemus had difficulty understanding our Lord’s teaching, Jesus exclaimed, 12If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
What we see and know of the material creation around us provides us the vocabulary, if you will, for spiritual truth that God would have us to know and to live by. No better concrete example of this can be found than the gospel lesson we heard a short while ago. In it, Jesus takes the things of this world – particularly, the things pertaining to the cultivation of grapes – and uses them to teach his disciples what they are to expect from Jesus and His Father in heaven as they continue to live their lives in Christ’s service.
Jesus gave this teaching to his disciples on the night in which he was betrayed. In so much of the upper room discourse, Jesus obviously has his eye on how his disciples are going to fulfill the mission he will leave with them when he finally departs the earth. This Thursday evening, by the way, you have the opportunity to mark that occasion, with a worship service that remembers Jesus’ ascension into heaven. But, Jesus’ teaching in the upper room, before he was betrayed, was looking beyond the ascension, to how the disciples – and later on people like you and me – were going to live their lives as Christ’s disciples.
None of us here are vinedressers, but the cultivation of grape vines has not changed a lot in two millennia, and there are a great number of them still in the world. This will come in handy in a moment when we ponder a couple of statements by Jesus which have disturbed some people over the years.
Unlike many of his other parables, Jesus – in this parable – interprets key parts of it immediately. “I am the true vine,” he says, “And my father is the vinedresser.” Did you ever wonder why Jesus said he was the “true” vine, rather that simply to say, “I am the vine, and my father is the vinedresser?” I think Jesus point is simply this: “there are vines and vinedressers, and you know them well. They are everywhere in the world. But, behind them all, above them all, as the reason for them all, I am the Origin of all vines. They are all pictures of me. I am the true vine, the rest are simply copies.”
After identifying himself as the true vine, and His Father (by implication) as the true vinedresser, he then explains in these terms how the Father works with the branches in the vine. And, at this point, we come to the first statement in Jesus’ teaching that has caused some to be disturbed. In the translation from which I read a moment ago, the text says this: “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, he takes away.” I suppose you can see how and why this would be troubling. But many have argued (and, I agree with them) that this is not an accurate rendering of the underlying Greek text.
The translation problem is this: the verb which our translation renders as “takes away” is the Greek verb airo. There are four ways this verb can be rendered in English. It can mean “to lift up or pick up”. For example, this is what the verb means when Jesus tells a paralytic in Matthew’s gospel to “pick up your bed and walk.” It’s the verb used when Matthew writes that they PICKED UP twelve baskets full of bread after feeding the 5,000.
Or the verb can mean to lift up something that is low or fallen down. It is used in this way in a Psalm that Satan quotes when tempting Christ in the wilderness. Satan says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will LIFT you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ ”
Or it can mean, “to lift up with the purpose of taking away.” This is the verb we find in the mouth of John the Baptist who hails Jesus as the lamb of God who TAKES AWAY the sin of the world. From this meaning, it is easy to see how it can also be used in the sense of “to remove.” John says the women came to the tomb and found that the stone had BEEN REMOVED.