The readings for Sunday, May 3, 2015, Fifth Sunday of Easter, Cycle B, are
Acts 9:26-31, 2:21-23; 1 John 3:18-24, 9-11; and John 15:1-8.
The Parable of the Vine and the Branches is part of John’s meditation on the Last Supper, chapters 13-17. The parable opens with these words, “I am the true vine.” To understand the meaning of the parable of the Vine and the Branches, two approaches our necessary. The first approach: an examination of Old Testament background. This leads to the second approach: an application of a principle found throughout the Gospel of John. This principle or theme can be called “replacement/perfection theology.” Before his long meditation on the meaning of the Last Supper, John used this principle to proclaim Jesus the new Torah (teaching or revelation from God); the new Moses; the final and perfect temple; the perfection or replacement of the Sabbath and the great feast days of Judaism; the King of Israel; the Good Shepherd.
If Jesus is the true vine, John must have in mind a vine that was not true. Who or what, at least in John’s theology, is this untrue vine? The answer is in the Old Testament. The most ancient biblical use of the grapevine as a metaphor for a person or group is probably Psalm 80:8-16. The Psalmist, “You brought a vine out of Egypt. You drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it. The mountains were covered with its shade…. It sent out its branches to the sea and its shoots to the River (Euphrates)….” The Psalmist demands to know why the Lord has broken down the wall protecting this choice vine. Then follows a plea to restore the vine to the favor of the Lord, to appoint a “son of man” to destroy those who burnt down the vine. It is not difficult to see the history of the people of Israel in this parable contained in Psalm 80.
The most striking Old Testament background is Isaiah 5:1-7, a parable in the form of a song, or more probably a chant something like rapping today. The prophet begins, “Let me sing for my Beloved a love song concerning his vineyard. The Beloved planted a vineyard on a fertile hill and planted it with choice vines. He built a watchtower in its center and prepared a wine vat in it. At harvest time he looked for grapes, but found only wild bitter grapes.” In response, the Beloved removed the hedge protecting the vineyard, broke down a protective wall, and let the vineyard go wild. No more rain would fall upon it. Then the prophetic rapper interprets, “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah….” Jeremiah 2:21, speaks to Jerusalem and Israel, “I planted you a choice vine…. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?” 6:9, “Thus says the Lord…, ‘Glean thoroughly as a vine the remnant of Israel. Like a grape-gatherer pass your hand again over its branches.’”
With this background from the Old Testament, there can be no doubt that in John’s theology Jesus is the true vine that replaces and/or perfects Israel as a people, the vine which became untrue to its purpose, at least from John’s point of view,
After proclaiming Jesus as the true vine, John identifies the branches growing on the vine. Speaking to his Christian community, John writes, “You are the branches.” Then he notes the necessity of the branches remaining on the vine, “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.” To every Christian of all generations John affirms the mediating role of Jesus, Savior of all, “Without me you can do nothing.” The parable takes on an ominous note, “Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither, and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.”
Ezekiel applies this metaphor to the faithless inhabitants of Jerusalem. John applies it to Christians who cut themselves off from Jesus. Is he speaking about faith? It seems not. The parable is explained in an extended treatment of love, love between Father and Son which extends beyond the Godhead to the disciples, to Christians. How do disciples of Jesus prove their love? By keeping the commandments of Jesus. He sums up his commandments in one commandment, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” How did Jesus express that love? “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends, (those he loves).” So it is love that flows from the vine to the branches and from one branch to another. There is a promise attached to those who remain in him and love one another, “Ask whatever you will, and it will be done for you.” But under this condition, “…that you bear fruit and become my disciples.”