Vine and Branches Rooted in God’s Good Earth – Dennis Ormseth reflects on hope for all who live in exile from good Earth,
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
1 John 4:7-21
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower . . . 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.” As part of Jesus’ Last Discourse, this use of the metaphor of the vine for the Christian relationship of love encompassing God, Jesus and his disciple, so richly amplified in the second lesson from 1 John, is also full of significance, perhaps largely unrecognized, for developing the church’s understanding of its vocation in relationship to the creation.
The life of branches is inseparable from the life of the vine. On this natural truth hangs the power of the admonition: “apart from me you can do nothing.” A like truth is that a vine cannot live without being rooted in soil; vine and branches together grow fruit when the vine is well rooted in the vineyard. And as a recent trip through the vineyards of western Oregon reminded this writer, good fruit like the pinot noir grape depends very much on the soil it grows in! This is to say that as the relationship of vine and branch is part of a much larger relationship that includes the vine-dresser (or the gardener) and the vineyard in which the vine is planted, so also we might expect that the metaphor in biblical context is a lively, expansive set of images, which encourages imaginative development of the metaphor’s potential. As Walter Brueggemann observes, “Yahweh as Gardener-Vinedresser” is an “enormously supple metaphor” in Old Testament literature, where already in Exodus 15:17, it is used “in anticipation of Israel’s reception of the land of promise: ‘you brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your bode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established’” (Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis, Fortress Press 1997, p. 255).
Thus, in what Brueggemann regards as the paradigmatic construction of the metaphor of the vine and vineyard, namely Isaiah 5:1-7, Yahweh “has been generous and attentive in caring for the vineyard that is Israel/Judah.” On the other hand, in that God intends that the vineyard should produce good grapes, “failing that (v. 7b), Yahweh the vinekeeper will destroy the vineyard.” The combination of generosity and destructive judgment (Lutherans might see gospel and law here) is characteristic of the use of the metaphor in prophetic literature, as it expresses the relationship between God and the people in connection with “the loss of land and the regiving of the land after exile.” As such, the metaphor expresses
“both the destructive potential of Yahweh against a recalcitrant object of love, and the remarkable generosity of Yahweh, which becomes the source of hope for rehabilitation in times of displacement. In the midst of destructive potential and remarkable generosity, we note that the gardener-vinedresser has firm, clear, nonnegotiable expectations for the vine. The vineyard must be productive, yielding in obedience the fruit intended by the planting” (Brueggemann, p. 257).
Against this Old Testament background, we want to suggest, the development of the metaphor in the Gospel reading for this Sunday offers “hope for rehabilitation in times of displacement,” in our time for the restoration of the creation in the face of the displacement of the human community from the Earth that sustains it, which is at the heart of the environmental crisis.
In this context Jesus’ claim to be the “true vine” would appear to mean that he is the true Israel that produces the rich fruit God desires from the land. Raymond E. Brown discusses this possibility at length in his commentary on John. The issues are too complex to discuss here, but Brown shows that the combination of parable and allegory characteristic of John’s Gospel allows for this interpretation. The “whole symbolism of Israel as a plant or tree, frequent in the OT, the Apocrypha, and Qumran, should also be brought into play here,” he writes. It is “a feature of Johannine theology that Jesus applied to himself terms used in the OT for Israel and in other parts of the NT for the Christian community.” And because John “sees the Christian believers as the genuine Israelites, the vine as a symbol of Jesus and the believers is, in a certain way, the symbol of the new Israel” (The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI. New York, Doubleday, 1970, pp. 670-72). It is therefore quite possible, he suggests, that John is here contrasting Jesus and his followers as the real vine with the false vine. A golden vine with clusters as tall as a man was a notable ornament of the Jerusalem Temple. Coins of the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70), struck to honor Jerusalem the holy, were stamped with an outline of a vine and branches. Rabbinical disciples regrouped at Jamnia were known as a vineyard. Thus if, as we have noted, John’s “description of the vine and the branches echoes OT passages dealing with the chastisement of Israel,” it seems reasonable to conclude that “the Johannine writer may well have been thinking that God had finally rejected the unproductive vine of Judaism still surviving in the Synagogue” (Brown, pp. 674-75).
In this light, it is important to note that in John 15:1-7 there is no reference at all to the land. The reader of earlier comments in this series on the lectionary for year B might recall that we regard Jesus’ displacement of Jerusalem and its temple as the central meeting place of people and God as a key to interpreting the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for our orientation to creation. Do only the vine and its branches matter now, along with the pruning of the branches by the gardener, because the land is no longer relevant to the life of the community? Or is it the case that the relevance of land is nonetheless assumed? Wouldn’t displacement from the vineyard in fact entail the destruction of the very possibility of life for the vine?
One needs, we propose, to think afresh about the structure of the original metaphor. As we noted above, the vine needs soil; it needs to be rooted in the earth. Vine and branches have little purchase on our imaginations apart from their rootedness in soil. The following story illustrates the point. A recent synod assembly was held in a large suburban church that featured a sanctuary filled with trees, rocks and water running over stone walls. Speakers addressing the assembly made beautiful use of the biblical metaphors of trees and plants. Close observation of the trees and the rocks into which they were planted revealed, however, that they were without soil. They didn’t need soil because both plants and rocks were in fact plastic imitations, very skillfully done, to be sure, but without even the possibility of real life. For this observer, the power of the metaphors we were hearing was entirely vacated. Real vines need soil; vines growing in the imagination without it cannot be true. Applied metaphorically to the life of a human being, and particularly to a human being who represents an entire people, as in Jesus’ claim, this requirement of the metaphor still holds: human beings, created by God as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, need adamah, earth, for life. The “true vine,” one might say, needs to be rooted in earth; only so does it make any sense to consider whether or not the branches of the vine are fruitful.
And so it is: If the presence of God has been displaced from Jerusalem to Jesus ‘the true vine,” that presence must nonetheless still be rooted in earth. Against the dualisms and gnosticisms of the Johaninne context, the claim that Jesus is the true vine reclaims the Jewish heritage of the land for the future of his community. Jesus the vine is rooted in the earth. If humans are “fundamentally rooted in this world, . . earthbound,” as David Rhoads puts it in introducing Earthbound: Created & Called to Care for Creation , “most importantly and surprisingly, so is God.” Not by natural limitation, of course, but rather by virtue of the intent and commitment of God’s love (St. Paul, Seraphim Communications DVD, 2009, Episode 1: Created/Called). And just so, God “is glorified by this,” says Jesus, “that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
This interpretation of the Gospel reading places strong emphasis on the importance of what Brown called “the anti-Synagogue polemic in John.” Brown has his own good counsel on this matter for readers of his commentary; John’s “harsh statements about ‘the Jews’ must be understood and evaluated against the polemic background of the times when it was written (The Gospel According to John I-XI. New York, Doubleday, 1966, p. 368). We would add, however, that the displacement of the presence of God from the temple under the control of the Jewish authorities to the person of Jesus and the body of Christ, as his presence came to be identified in the Eucharistic worship of the Christian community, liberated the experience of that presence from the social and political bonds in which the practices of the Jewish political and religious elites in Jerusalem had expressed it. This is undoubtedly what the mutually hostile polemic was largely about. Nothing illustrates that liberation so dramatically, perhaps, than the narrative concerning the Ethiopian eunuch in this Sunday’s first lesson. The eunuch had gone up to Jerusalem to worship in the temple; custom would have limited his access to an outer courtyard. Now on his way home to Ethiopia, he encounters an apostle led by the Spirit of God, who shows him how he can enter fully into life with God, in and through the relationship with the Christian community in the body of Christ. If Ethiopia was then understood to be “at the ends of the earth,” already in this exchange the good news of the reorientation to creation as the gift of a loving God is becoming a reality everywhere on what we now understand to be one planet in a marvelous universe (For this reading of the lesson, see Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998, pp. 290-301).
The liberation from the temple and its governing authorities of the experience of God’s love makes possible the reorientation to the earth—all of Earth—as the gift of God’s love serves as the soil in which the true vine-dresser plants the true vine. Thus, we appropriate sing in today’s psalm text that
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.”
God’s “rootedness” in the earth, in other words, is not limited to one mountain, or even to one land. It is available wherever there is water (even in the desert) by means of which we can enter and become part of a “new creation.” Once seen as limited to a “holy land,” that experience is now opened up in the presence of Christ to all who inhabit this “sacred earth.” The vine grows where the vine-grower plants it, and its branches, pruned, trimmed as they may be, but also fed, bear good fruit. The fruit that once died on the vine gains new life, as it is grafted into “the true vine,” which grows up out of the good soil of all God’s creation. This is indeed hope for all who live in exile from that good Earth. As Norman Wirzba writes,
“True followers are beloved friends of Jesus who know from the inside what the intention and the life of the Father is all about. If they are grafted onto Jesus—most basically by continuing Christ’s ministries of feeding, healing, forgiving, and reconciling—then they will be continuing in the world God’s own life-building ways that have been in place since the first day of creation. They will garden creation like God does. Jesus is the vine that makes possible every fruit-bearing branch” (Food and Faith, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 67).
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.