The true vine is the sign of right relationship—Creator, people, and land interrelated.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary: Year B 2015
By Dennis Ormseth
Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year B 2015
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.” John's use of the metaphor of the vine for the Christian relationship of love encompassing God, Jesus and his disciples, so richly amplified in the second lesson from 1 John, is rich in implication for the church's 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. The relationship of vine and branch is thus part of a much larger relationship that includes the vine-dresser, or the gardener, the vineyard in which the vine is planted, and its sustaining environs. Jesus, according to John's account, is not unmindful of this larger frame of reference: on the contrary, could he be “the true vine” if “the vine-grower,” who brings all these elements together, is not his “Father”?
As in the case of the image of the “shepherd” from last Sunday's gospel, the metaphor of the vine as used here bears theological as well as Christological and soteriological significance, as a word about the Father who is creator no less than the Redeemer who is the Son. Background for this understanding is found, of course, in the Hebrew Bible. As Walter Brueggemann observes, “Yahweh as Gardener-Vinedresser” is an “enormously supple metaphor.” 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 abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established'” (Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, p. 255). And in what Brueggemann regards as the paradigmatic construction of the metaphor of the vine and vineyard, Isaiah 5:1-7, Yahweh “has been generous and attentive in caring for the vineyard that is Israel/Judah.” There is, furthermore, concern for “the true vine:” God intends that the vineyard produce good fruit. Indeed, “failing that (v. 7b), Yahweh the vinekeeper will destroy the vineyard.” The combination of generosity and destructive judgment 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.” 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 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,” or in our time of ecological crisis, for the restoration of the creation in the face of the destructive alienation of the human community from the Earth that sustains it.
Jesus' claim to be the “'true vine” would appear in this context to mean that he is the true Israel that produces the rich fruit God desires from the land. Raymond E. Brown shows that John's rich combination of parable and allegory 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). This is a theme of crucial significance for creation care as an integral aspect of the church's mission. John appropriates for Jesus the significance of Israel, and particularly of Israel at worship in the temple, for the well-being of the people in relationship to the land. As we just noted from Exodus 15, the vine of Israel was planted “on the mountain of [Yahweh's] possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your bode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established.” A golden vine with clusters as tall as a man, Brown observes, 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 who regrouped at Jamnia were known as a vineyard. Thus if 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). Whether or not John here wishes to contrast Jesus and the church as the true vine as over against the false vine of Israel's religious leadership need not concern us further here; the more important point is that as was the temple in relationship to Israel's existence in the land, so is Jesus' relationship to the church: the true vine is the sign of right relationship, Creator, people, and land taken together.
Readers may object that there is no explicit reference to the land in John 15:1-78. Might this not mean that 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 Christian community? A narrow focus on the metaphor as having to do solely with the relationship between Jesus and his followers can easily lead to this conclusion. Neither the creator nor the land need come into view. We would argue that, on the contrary, along with the Creator, who is part of the metaphor, comes the land the Creator provides. One needs, we propose, to think holistically about the structure of the original metaphor. As we noted above, the vine needs soil, it needs to be rooted. No less than the absence of the vine-grower. displacement of the vine from the vineyard would in fact entail the elimination of the very possibility of life for the vine. Given the context of the Gospel's composition, the claim that Jesus is the true vine retains for the future of his community the Jewish heritage of the land, although not necessarily limited to the specific land of Israel. Against the dualisms and gnosticisms of the religious context of the Gospel's author, Jesus the true 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).
This interpretation of the Gospel reading places strong emphasis on the importance of what Brown called “the anti-Synagogue polemic in John.” Brown counsels readers of his commentary that 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 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 those authorities had shackled it. This is likely what the mutually hostile polemic was at least in part 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 the 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 the earth—as the gift of God's love in which the true vine-dresser plants the true vine. Thus we appropriately 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 sum, 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 significance of “Jesus the vine” for the contemporary reader is expanded dramatically because the way in which the related metaphor of the “Tree of Life” has been employed to express scientific truth. As Elizabeth Johnson notes, in Charles Darwin's hands the image of the Tree
illuminates an ecological truth: 'Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life.' . . . This is true not just here or there but everywhere; not just now and then but always. That all species are related in the flow of life and death is a keystone of evolutionary theory. The grandeur displayed in this view of life is ecological in character. Reading [Darwin's} Origin with an ecologically open eye allows its deep appreciation for the interrelatedness of life to emerge, offsetting the stereotype that life consists of nothing more than brutal competition (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, London; Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 121).
But considered as a species, Larry Rasmussen argues, we have somehow managed to place ourselves outside of this structure of interrelation. He writes,
The Tree of life as part of us and we as part of it lives somewhere outside our modern self awareness. Modernity's prized bubble—the built environment as our true habitat—leads to 'apartheid' consciousness at the species level. Like whites in apartheid South Africa, we think “our kin” can develop separately. Human beings collectively become the center and focus, drawing upon all the rest as needed. We do not regard ourselves internally related as kin to the rest of a shared and indispensable community that also lives embedded in the earth and cosmos (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford: Oxford Uiniversity Press, 2013, p. 19-20).
Accordingly, the image of Jesus as the Vine who gives life to its branches can serve to encourage us to enter into that internal relatedness. Nonetheless, while “as bio-social creatures by nature,” Rasmussen further observes,
we might acknowledge that our deepest human need is for social bonds in committed relationships—the opposite of self-absorption—we for some reason do not extend these bonds and commitments to other-than-human life. The outcome is the kind of anthropocentrism that smothers the cosmophilia (love of the cosmos) and biophilia (love of life) native to the kind of creature we are (Rasmussen, p. 20).
When '”the vinedresser” is his Father the Creator, on the other hand, we can hope to transcend the “constricted and alienated sense of ourselves” that is “the species counterpart of the heart-turned-in-upon itself (cor curvatum in se) that the Christian tradition has identified as sin. This is indeed hope for all who live in exile from God's 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).
For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288