I am not much of a gardener. As a city-dweller, I am lucky if I can keep a few houseplants alive. What is especially difficult for me is to prune parts of a plant that still have life in them, even if they are scraggly and have stopped flowering. I have no problem clipping off parts that are clearly dead, but it is hard to bring myself to trim off something still living.
In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of the Father as a vintner who prunes branches that are bearing fruit so that they will produce even more. There is a strong emphasis on “bearing fruit”; the expression occurs five times in the passage. It speaks not only of the fecundity in our relationship with God, but also of missionary outreach and of interdependence with the other branches on the vine.
The image of God as a vine grower and Israel as the vineyard is a familiar one in the Scriptures (for example, Is 5:1-7; 27:2-5; Jer 2:21; Ps 80:8-18). Most often the metaphor is used to express God’s disappointment in the lack of yield from a vine so tenderly planted and nurtured. In the Gospel of John, this is not the case. The disciples Jesus is addressing in this Last Supper scene are “already pruned” so that they will bear more fruit. Branches that do not bear fruit are taken away.
There is a word play between the verb airei, “takes away,” and its compound kathairei, “prunes.” Moreover, there are verbal echoes of other parts of Jesus’ farewell discourse at the supper and the passion narrative. The imperative form of the verb airei is found in the cry of the people who call for Jesus’ crucifixion, “aron,” “Away with him!” (19:15). The adjectival form of the verb kathairei, which literally means “to make clean,” occurs in the footwashing scene (13:10-11), where Jesus assures the disciples they are clean (katharoi).
Pruning then is another Johannine metaphor for the passion. It is akin to the image in Jn 12:24, where Jesus speaks of the seed that must fall to the ground and die in order to bear much fruit. The emphasis is on the life that sprouts forth from the dying and the pruning. Expert gardeners know that the place to prune is, paradoxically, where the nodes are bursting with life.
From pruning, the stress in the Gospel shifts to the importance of the branch remaining united to the vine in order to bear fruit. A branch cannot bear fruit on its own; cut off from the vine, it withers and dies and then is good only for kindling. That remaining or abiding in Jesus is crucial for disciples is evident in that the verb menein, “to abide,” occurs eight times in these eight verses. This mutual indwelling has been spoken of since the opening chapter of the Gospel, where the first question asked by the initial two disciples is, “Where are you staying?” (meneis) (1:38). Another important moment is when the Samaritans ask Jesus to stay (menein) with them (4:40). In the Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus tells his followers, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood, abide [menei] in me and I in them” (6:56). True disciples abide in Jesus’ word (8:31) and Jesus’ words remain in the disciples (15:7). When Jesus tells his disciples he is going to prepare a dwelling place for them (14:2), it becomes clear that the “abiding place” is not a geographical locale, but is Jesus himself (14:6), where also the Father makes his home (14:23) along with the Spirit (14:17).
How can we insure that we are abiding in Christ and he in us? In the second reading, 1 Jn 3:24 gives a simple formula: “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us.” The writer also spells out what it means to keep the commandments: “We should believe in the name of...Jesus Christ and love one another just as he commanded us” (1 Jn 3:23).
Barbara E. Reid