‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I 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. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Translation: "I am the true vine, and my father is the vine dresser. Every shoot in me not producing fruit, he takes away. And each producing fruit he cleanses so that it might produce more fruit. Now you are the cleansed ones through the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me as I remain in you. Just as the shoot is not able to produce fruit by itself unless it remains in the vine, neither can you if you do not remain in me. I am the vine, you the shoots. The one remaining in me and I in them is producing much fruit, because apart from me, you are not able to do anything. If one should not remain in me, that one has been thrown out like a dried up shoot, and they are gathered together and they are thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, so that, if you desire, ask and it will come to being in you. In this, my father has been glorified so that much fruit might be produced and you will be known as my disciples."
Background and situation: The text begins with the divine name, ego eimi, which is the Greek form of God's name in Hebrew, the tetragrammaton, YHWH. This is the name given to Moses, a word with an intriguing and elusive meaning, "I am who I am," or "I will be who I will be." (Someone once told me that the Hebrew "YHWH" contains every conjugation of the verb "to be.")
With "I AM" on the lips of Jesus on many occasions in the fourth gospel, the author flatly declares that God is present in the world and his name is Jesus. Moreover, God is present in ways that are understandable and approachable--the gate, the door, the good shepherd, the light, and, here, the "true vine."
The vineyard was an important image in ancient Israel. The vineyard, in fact, was Israel, metaphorically speaking. Such references can be traced at least to the 8th century BC, as in Isaiah 5:2: "For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the vineyard of Israel."
The vine was a popular image in the time of Jesus. The Temple in Jerusalem was decorated with the vineyard theme. During the Roman-Jewish War, AD 66-70, the vine image was used on the coins minted by the Jewish rebels.
For God's sake, don't preach supercessionism: This text has traditionally been interpreted to support supercessionism, i.e. that Judaism has been supplanted by Christianity as God's favorite religion. Jesus as the "true vine" has replaced Judaism the vineyard--or something like that.
One should keep in mind here that we are reading the position of the author of the fourth gospel, writing approximately AD 95. Neither the fourth gospel, nor Jesus himself, saw Christianity as the supplanter of Judaism. (In fact, neither of them even saw Christianity, let alone its triumph.)
Jesus was born a Jew, raised a Jew, thought of himself as a Jew, and died a Jew. He did not invent some new religion called Christianity. He practiced the religion he already had and drew deeply from its traditions, particularly that of the prophets.
Jesus consciously and directly represented the prophetic tradition of Israel and, like several of the prophets, attacked the corruption and hubris of the Temple in Jerusalem. It's not for nothing that Jesus is quoted as recalling the prophets Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah. Some people of the day thought that Jesus was Jeremiah. (Mt 16:14)
The fourth gospel is not an argument of Christianity against Judaism. It's an argument within Judaism, one between Galilean Jews and Judean Jews. The Galilean point-of-view--the one promoted by Jesus--is opposed to hierarchical power and in favor of the basic dignity of all human beings. The Judean point-of-view is protective of Temple power and promotes social division.
So for Jesus to say--or for the fourth gospel to have him say--that he is closer to God than Israel does not mean the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. It means the superiority of the way of Jesus over the way of the Judean religious power structure. For the author of the fourth gospel, Jesus is indeed close to the Father's heart because Jesus replaced the corrupt Temple-based sacrificial system with himself.
Producing fruit: This portion of the fourth gospel (chapters 14-17) is densely compacted. Let's take it a little at a time. (I once wondered aloud on Facebook: "The themes of the farewell discourses in the fourth gospel are almost Asian in their interweaving of themes." One of my evangelical relatives responded: "What are you talking about? Speaking in tongues?")
Every shoot in me not producing fruit, he takes away. And each producing fruit he cleanses so that it might produce more fruit.
The emphasis, clearly, is on producing fruit. Producing fruit is the whole purpose of the community of faith. To produce fruit means to follow the way of Jesus. Whoever does not produce fruit, the father will "take away." (The fourth gospel occasionally causes discomfort for those who may be content to sit and simply enjoy being "saved.")
Those who do produce fruit are "cleansed"--kathairei--so that they may go out there and produce even more fruit. The message could not be clearer: Get out there and produce fruit! Follow the way of Jesus!
Now you are the cleansed ones through the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me as I remain in you. Just as the shoot is not able to produce fruit by itself unless it remains in the vine, neither can you if you do not remain in me.
Again, Jesus states a major theme of the fourth gospel. They will not be able to produce fruit unless they "remain"--menein--in Jesus. Menein is variously translated to "abide" or "dwell" or "remain with."
The word is used dozens of times in the fourth gospel. Over and over, the fourth gospel speaks of this "mutual abiding" between Jesus and his followers as well as the "mutual abiding" between Jesus and the Father. With Jesus, the community produces fruit. Without him, it produces nothing.
"I am the vine":
I am the vine, you the shoots. The one remaining in me and I in them is producing much fruit, because apart from me, you are not able to do anything.
Ego eimi!--again! Of the many instances of Jesus saying ego eimi, the fourth gospel repeats only two: "I am the good shepherd", and "I am the vine."
Jesus goes on to say that the one in him produces much fruit. Didn't he just say that? The only difference here (v. 5) is that Jesus says the one in him "is producing," which is in the present tense. It is happening right now.
In fact, it would be impossible for one truly "in him" not to produce fruit. Likewise, it is only through his power that producing fruit is possible--"apart from me, you are not able" (ou dunesthe).
If one should not remain in me, that one has been thrown out like a dried up shoot, and they are gathered together and they are thrown into the fire and burned.
This has nothing to do with "hellfire and damnation" for people who don't think right. The interpretive key is the use of the word synagoge--"gathered together," from whence comes the word "synagogue."
In the world of AD 95, when the fourth gospel was written, there were indeed followers of Jesus who were kicked out of the synagogue. (This would not have been so at the time of Jesus. The "synagogue system" developed mostly after the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70.)
There are consequences for betraying the community, Jesus says. The ones who do will be "gathered together"--an ironic slam on synagogues--and burned. It is a stern warning, but Jesus doesn't dwell on it. He announces it and then returns to a more positive tone:
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, so that, if you desire, ask and it will come to being in you. In this, my father has been glorified so that much fruit might be produced and you will be known as my disciples.
The word translated as "desire" is thelo. "If you desire" or "if you are willing," ask and it will come to being in you. The text assumes that if one "remains" in Jesus, and his teachings ("my words"), then that person's "will" or "desire" will be aligned with Jesus' "will" and "desire."
Given that--given one's complete identity with the "desire" and mission of Jesus--then whatever they "ask" will be given. To put it a different way, if one is not asking out of the will and desire of Jesus, then nada. Ask for what aids in producing fruit and you will have it. Ask for a new Mercedes and you will not.
One notes also that whatever Jesus' followers ask that is in line with his will and purpose "will come to being" in them--another possibility: "It will be born" in them. It will be created in them. Aligned in heart and will with Jesus, his followers not only will be new people, but will also have on-going strength for the journey and the way of discipleship.
Psychological maturity: The text definitely has a political and social dimension. The way of Jesus has already begun. Fruit is being produced, which means that hierarchies are being overturned, and all people are welcomed and affirmed as they travel on the way.
There is also a powerful psychological dimension as well. Consider that most of the text is written for "you"--plural, meaning the entire believing community. (I'm guessing that 90% of the "yous" in the New Testament are plural.) Occasionally, however, the author switches to "you" singular, which indicates to me the appropriateness of applying the passage to the individual follower of Jesus.
The connection of the vine and the branches expresses the joyful side of the individuation process. (Individuation refers to healthy ego development.) We hear plenty about its difficulties--the "long dark night of the soul," the chaos and threat of the unconscious, etc.--but there is a positive and "fruitful" side as well. Healthy ego development generates understanding and taps creativity. It encourages love.
Any religious faith based in sentimentality or emotionality is immature and one-dimensional. It will not be able to handle the difficulties, even ruthlessness, of the spiritual life. You don't think the spiritual life is ruthless? Then explain this: That in us which does not "produce fruit" will die.
Not just anything goes with God. If something in us does not fulfill its intended purpose, it will wither and dry up. Worse, it may even turn into an enemy.
The vine represents the individual's connection with his true Center, which is Christ. Think of Jack and the Beanstalk where the vine represents the connection between the earthly world and the heavenly one. Or better, think of the vine as an image in the cult of Dionysus, which, contrary to popular thought, was not focused on drunkenness, but on ecstasy.
The original meaning of ecstasy was "to stand apart, or outside of, the self." Without moments of ecstasy, the ego becomes trapped in an "ego box" which is bounded by an utterly rational approach to life.
Rationality can be healthy--it's an aid to the ego--but, if that's the only thing upon which the ego is based, the ego will become hard and rigid. Like any other "friend" of the ego, rationality can turn into an "enemy," especially so if the person doesn't have a connection to "ecstasy" or some experience of the Divine.
Our connection to the vital life of Christ generates his wish and desire "coming to being"--genesethai--in us. Through the birth of the new, the community is empowered to "produce fruit." This is how we become known--genesthe, a term of great emotional depth and intimacy--as Christ's disciples.
Image: Thaden Mosaics