Tuesday, August 27, 2013

John 15:1-6 – The Parable of the Vine and Branches

Topic: Abiding in him (in his love)
Intended Audience: Jesus’ fearful disciples

          1.    Is it a parable?
          2.    The larger context
          3.    The immediate context
          4.    The parable: fruit, pruned, burned, abide
          5.    The meaning

1.     Is it a parable?

An “analogy” is a comparison to show similarity. Jesus uses three kinds of analogies:

  • A Parable is an analogy with a storyline. It’s a brief fictional narrative with characters and a plot told to teach a truth about something in real life. It’s a symbolic mini-drama. The Parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, is a very short story with characters who think and speak and act.

  • A Simile is an analogy comparing explicitly how one thing is like (or as) another. “It hit me like a ton of bricks.” “She’s as sweet as candy.” “He’s stubborn as a mule.”

  • A Metaphor is an analogy that does not use narrative (like a parable) and does not use the words “like” and “as a” (like a simile). For example, “He is a diamond in the rough,” or “You are the wind beneath my wings.” Shakespeare was a master of metaphor: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!”

Jesus loved analogies, whether in the form of parables, similes, or metaphors:

  • He told parables, the two most beloved perhaps being The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son, though he told many others.

  • He used similes, one of his most familiar being, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” And another: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean.” (emphases mine)

  • He used metaphors: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” “No one pours new wine into old wineskins.”

Strictly speaking, John’s Gospel lacks parables, has a few similes, but abounds in metaphors. John 15:1-7 is such a metaphor, though a long one, and there is a twist at the end. In verse 6, the final verse, the metaphor becomes a simile when Jesus uses the word “like”:

NRS John 15:1-6  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes {the same Greek root refers to pruning and cleansing} to make it bear more fruit.  3 You have already been cleansed {the same Greek root refers to pruning and cleansing} by the word that I have spoken to you.  4 Abide 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.  5 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.  6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (emphasis mine)

Can I get away with calling this extended metaphor/simile a parable?

Look at Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed:
Mark 4:31-33   31 “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground.  32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade."  33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them . . .” (emphases mine)

We call this analogy a parable. Mark calls this analogy a parable. But is it? There are no characters who think and speak and act. In fact, there are no characters at all. And there is no plot. Again, strictly speaking, this is not a parable. No doubt you can see that it is a simile due to the use of the word “like.” The kingdom is like a mustard seed.

My point? If we can call the mustard seed simile a parable—yea verily, if Mark can call the mustard seed simile a parable in 4:33—, then why not feel free to call The Metaphor/Simile of the Vine and Branches a parable, The Parable of the Vine and Branches.

2.     The larger context

Our featured parable is in the middle of Jesus’ very lengthy “Farewell Discourse,” John 13:31-17:26. He’s saying goodbye on the night of his arrest, the night associated with the Last Supper, though John, unlike the Synoptic Gospels does not include a eucharistic formula at a Passover meal (perhaps because in John’s Gospel Jesus is the Passover). John gives us foot washing instead (13:1-30).

Following Judas’ departure into the night, Jesus begins his longest single “speech” in the Bible. It’s interrupted occasionally by questions from the disciples, but it’s non-stop Jesus otherwise. He’s telling them that he’s leaving, but he’s cushioning the blow by promising to send the Holy Spirit, by giving them a new commandment to love one another as he has loved them, by foretelling what they must do and endure, by praying for them in their presence, and, perhaps most importantly, by telling them to abide in him to bear fruit until they join him in his Father’s abode.

3.     The immediate context

Immediately preceding – The section immediately preceding our featured parable places Jesus’ announcement that he is “going away” in the context of these words of promise, comfort, and peace.

John 14:25-31  25 "All this I have spoken while still with you.  26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.  27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  28 "You heard me say, 'I am going away and I am coming back to you.' If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.  29 I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.  30 I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me,  31 but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me. "Come now; let us leave.”

I may be going away, he says, but the Counselor is coming from the Father to teach you. And to still your fearful, troubled hearts, I give you my peace. (Remarkable that Jesus is the one about to die, yet he gives his disciples peace.)

The script of the movie The Gospel of John is the actual Gospel of John word for word. Philip Saville, the director, spoke of the difficulty of filming this long Farewell Discourse without losing the audience’s attention while Jesus just stands there talking for 20+ minutes. Saville addressed this in two ways.

One, he used black and white flashbacks to earlier relevant points in the film. These not only broke up the speech effectively, but added to the drama of what he was saying to them in his goodbye.

Two, he changed locations between Chapters 14 and 15. When Jesus says, “Come now, let us leave,” (14:31) the camera shows them leaving the “upper room” and walking toward Gethsemane. On the way they walk through a vineyard, and as they do so, the words of 15:1 begin:

John 15:1  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.”

By the light of a Passover full moon, passing through a Jerusalem vineyard, Saville’s Jesus (Henry Ian Cusik) tells The Parable of the Vine and Branches. It is a most effective scene in what I think is the best movie about Jesus made to date.

Immediately following – Immediately following our parable, Jesus explains that the purpose the branch abiding in the vine is joy. On the eve of his death he’s talking about joy? Yes.

John 15:7-11   7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.  8 This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.  9 "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.  10 If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love.  11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

Jesus’ instructions following our featured parable are explained in terms of glory, fruit, love, and joy. The occasion is sad because he’s leaving. No one is trying to get around that with sugary joy talk. The sheer volume of his “Farewell Discourse” acknowledges the presence of grief at his departure, especially considering the tragic way in which he would leave. Their pain is precisely what Jesus goes to great lengths to address. It’s going to hurt them badly and he knows it. Yet, he is assuring them (at length) that it’s all for joy.

You might complain, Can he be serious? Is this not Pollyannaism? Where’d he get those rose colored glasses?

No. That’s not it. Jesus is the one who is choosing to endure agony to accomplish this departure, and he knows the hell of it is coming for him and for them. But he sees a bigger picture, and he’s trying to help them see it, too, so that they may, if not now then later, understand and believe. He’s telling them from inside of their fear and sorrow that the only way their joy can be complete in the end is if he goes. The pain now is serving a greater joy to come, not the least of which will be the joy of his resurrection. So they are to remain in him and his love no matter what, bear the fruit of that love no matter what, so that his joy will be in them completing their joy eternally. This is a glorious hope promised to them from within the belly of betrayal and heartbreak.

4.     The Parable: Fruit, Pruned, Burned, Abide

Fruit – The focus on bearing fruit grounds the parable in loving relationships of service in the here and now. The “abiding” analogized by the branch and the vine is no pie-in-the-sky future promise, but a present-in-this-world mission of love. This fruit, of course, is love, and it’s also those things that are loving toward others. His new commandment at the outset of the “Farewell Discourse” is to love one another as he has loved them (13:32-35). This abiding he is speaking about is a present reality that produces the power to bear the fruit of love. His point is that the branches cannot do this apart from the vine. In order to love, they have to be in love in him. And to be in love in him produces love.

Pruned – Fred Craddock’s paragraph on this is extraordinary:

“Be a branch and feel the knife of the vinedresser. Both dead branches and live branches are severely cut, in the one case in order to be tossed away, in the other for the purpose of increased fruitfulness. Experientially, what is the difference? Interestingly, the Greek words translated “to take away” and “to prune” have the same stem. “Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, airei (he takes away), and every branch that does bear fruit, athairei (he prunes) that it may bear more fruit.” (v. 2) The play on words stirs the readers to realize how similar and yet how different are the two experiences of the vinedresser’s cutting. Pruning can be so painful (removal of the debilitating baggage of things, relationships, activities, meaningless pursuits). Who among us has not interpreted the experience as being cut away from God, hurt, angry, and confused?”

John, Fred Craddock, Knox Preaching Guides, John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1982, p. 114.

With all due respect to Dr. Craddock, he is only partially right. I say this with respect because he was my favorite professor in seminary. With any luck, he won’t read this!

I agree with Dr. Craddock that it hurts when the vinedresser prunes the “debilitating baggage of things, relationships, activities, and meaningless pursuits” from our lives. It hurts because we cling to them, we believe we need them, or we are addicted to them. When we are pruned of them, even though in the divine scope of things they are bad for us, we still have withdrawal pains. Real grief. Real loss. They were our crutches. But God prunes the crutches from our lives because, despite what we believe, we don’t need them and they are keeping us from walking, from running, from being free. Fruitful productivity then is often born of the pain of pruning. I agree with Dr. Craddock. But there is another side to this when we look at it in context.

Where I must disagree with Dr. Craddock is that Jesus is preparing his beloved friends and followers for a pruning of another kind. Within hours they will be cut. It will likely be the worst cutting of their lives. Yet this pruning is not the removal of something debilitating, but the pain of Jesus’ removal from their lives via the cross. They are about to lose their friend, their teacher, and their Lord. What more painful pruning can one imagine?

The cuts were so deep. Judas’ betrayed him. They all forsook him and fled. Peter denied him three times and disavowed discipleship. None but John was brave enough to attend the crucifixion. This pruning, Jesus knew, would feel like being cut off from God. If anything was going to feel like being cut off by God, this would be it.

You might protest, But wait, Bert, Jesus is the vine and the disciples are the branches. How can Jesus be pruned from them? They aren’t the vine. He’s not a branch.

That’s true. But their relationship with the man, the earthly man with whom they have face-to-face partnership in ministry, is nevertheless about to be pruned from them. Apart from who he is parabolically and who they are parabolically, his earthly life with them will be pruned. But, Jesus insists, it’s a pruning for fruitfulness that will yield joy!

John 12:24   “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

That’s his point for the evening as they walk to Gethsemane. He’s acknowledging the painful pruning they are moments away from experiencing. Yet at the same time he is assuring them that this will not be a cutting off, but it will be instead a pruning for greater fruitfulness. I hear Jesus telling his fearful disciples:

  1. The pruning of our earthly relationship due to my death is real and it will hurt.
  2. It will feel like you’re being cut off, but you’re not.
  3. This is a pruning for fruitfulness, and the vinedresser’s hand is in this for your good.
  4. Fruitfulness will result from this because you are my branch in the pruning.
  5. You will be able to abide in my love despite my departure; my love will not leave you.

But wait, there’s more, and it’s mind-blowing. Yes, the pruning of Jesus will be painful for them. But look at what this means in light of the parable. It means that the living vine is willingly taking the place of the fruitless, spiritually dead branches and allowing itself to be pruned in their place. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Burned How typical of us to think we see Dante’s burning hell even in a parable meant to comfort disciples on the night of Jesus’ arrest and execution! It’s a horrible projection:

If you don’t love me, I shall cut you off and burn you forever and ever in a devil’s hell.

Come on! Let’s not do this. Let’s take our afterlife glasses off, please. This abiding thing is a here and now thing, right? The point of abiding is bearing fruit in the here and now, right? So let’s look faithfully at verse 6 without presumption or projection as much as is possible.

John 15:6  “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”

First, let’s remember the context. Jesus is helping his disciple to understand his coming departure and how to go on without him toward fullness of joy. This is instruction purposed for comfort and for going on living. Why on the eve of his death—a death that will hurt them beyond all imagining—would he say, “Love me or I’ll torture you when you die.” It’s abominable to think like that, and it makes me crazy that the majority of modern evangelicals in America today, I dare say, look at our featured parable and see a threat of hell-fire. It sickens me with sadness.

Second, in the first phrase of the verse he says, “If anyone does not remain in me.” Remain means to stay. So we can’t be talking about “non-believers” getting themselves “saved” from God’s hell-fire. Since remain means stay, we are talking about believers remaining in him and his love no matter what to bear fruit and complete his and their joy.

Third, the one who doesn't stay in his love is like a branch. It’s a metaphor, is it not? If the disciple who stops loving is like a branch, then he’s not a literal branch, is he? Is Jesus threatening to turn someone into a stick? No, it’s a metaphor. L-I-K-E, like. So if the stick is a metaphor, then the fire is too. How is it that we have turned Jesus’ passionate metaphorical love-plea to his disciples into a grim, literal afterlife-threat to unbelievers? It’s insane. No, it’s evil. There! I said it.

What, then, is Jesus saying in verse 6? This is what I hear:

Though I’m leaving, and that will be hard, if you don’t continue abiding in my love, you’ll become a fruitless branch sapping energy and nutrients from the producing branches. For you to become a mere leach will be no good for you and no good for your friends here. Parasites bear no fruit and drain the fruitful branches. A fruitless drain on the vine has to be cut away. Every sane vinedresser knows that. Peter, you don’t want to go there, no matter how bad you’re hurting. John, if you stop loving, where will you be? You’ll be a withering and dying stick in a pile with other withering and dying sticks, of no use to a vinedresser but as kindling for the home-fires. Don’t let that happen. No matter what, abide in my love and bear the fruits of love. Don’t stop loving, and do it with every beat of your broken heart.

This is not a threat of hell to unbelievers, you see? It’s Jesus showing his fearful disciples love’s way forward through their pain. He’s showing them what they probably already knew, that if one responds to life’s wounds by withdrawing, by withholding love, then one dies spiritually here and now. Jesus wants to nix that eventuality for his beloved disciples with a little love-education from God’s vineyard.

Abide Abide in me as I abide in you.” (John 15:4) This is the heart of our parable. To get at its meaning, let’s have a look at the glamorous world of televangelism.

Abode and abide: He’s not talking about mansions in the sky

Have you noticed that the “Christian” studio sets that you see on TV are often opulent to the point of gaudiness? They look like the parlors of antebellum mansions. Why, you may ask? Boy, do I have a theory for you! It has to do with heaven, or a certain conception of the heavenly afterlife. You are no doubt familiar with this verse:

John 14:2 “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places (or rooms). If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

In the English version of the Bible most revered by those who watch these television prosperity preachers—the King James Version—the verse reads like this:

KJV John 14:2 “In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” (emphasis mine)

I suspect that this verse has created in believers’ minds the expectation that when one dies and “goes to heaven” that one lives in a lavish mansion! So what do the sets of television evangelists often look like? They are decorated to look like the parlors of gold embroidered, circular staircased, Persian rugged mansions! The televangelists are more than happy to give the believing viewer a glimpse of the antebellum paradise awaiting him in the sky by and by.

Forced to live in less than palatial dwellings during their earthly lives, supporters of TV prosperity preachers are presented with an eye-popping preview of the sumptuous heavenly estates awaiting them on the other side. Supporters see these “ministers” in their flashy attire as heavenly mansion-dwellers granting them a sneak peek at what’s in store for them upon the moment of crossing over. All the fineries of the rich and famous one day will be theirs too. This is the bizarre promise of television’s prosperity palaces.

Back to our parable and the word “abide”: The word for rooms (mansions) in Greek is monh, mone {pronounced mon-ay'}. To understand this word it might be best to translate it “abode,” since mone is related to its cognate verb me,nw meno {pronounced men'-o}, which means “abide.” In my Father’s house are many abodes. There is an emphasis in John’s Gospel on the Father abiding in the Son and the Son in the Father. They abide in one another, making one another their abode.

14:10  “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells (meno, abides) in me does his works.”

In our featured parable, in John 15:9, and in 1 John 2:24 is the claim that we can participate in this relationship by making our home (abode) in Jesus even as he has made his home (abode) in us.

John 15:4  Abide (meno) in me as I abide (meno) in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides (meno) in the vine, neither can you unless you abide (meno) in me.

John 15:9  As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide (meno) in my love.

1 John 2:24  Let what you heard from the beginning abide (meno) in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides (meno) in you, then you will abide (meno) in the Son and in the Father.

The New English Translation Notes affirm that John’s use of abode and abide “refer to the permanence of relationship between Jesus and the Father and/or Jesus and the believer.” The Holy Spirit is in this relationship too.

John 14:16-17 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you (meno, abide) forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides (meno) with you, and he will be in you.

To abide (meno) in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is to make your abode (mone) in them. They are your abode (mone). Therefore, abide equals abode, because Jesus equals the place.

What Jesus had in mind by saying that in his Father’s house are many rooms (mone, abodes) is that there is not only a place in God for you now, but always. This is a poetic/metaphoric expression of being in relationship with God. Jesus is speaking of being “at home” in his Father. It probably has to do with something far more profound than a heavenly Tara, the plantation in “Gone with the Wind.”

In John 14:2 Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you.” (emphasis mine) He goes (via death, resurrection, and ascension) to prepare a “room” (mone = abode) for you in his Father’s “house.” He goes to prepare a place, yet he is the place, he is the abode, and he promises to bring you to himself.

John 14:3  “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

To bring you to himself is to bring you to the Father, because he is in the Father:

John 1:18  No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart (literally “in the bosom of the Father”) who has made him known. (emphasis mine)

The closeness of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is expressed biblically by speaking of close proximity in space. They are in a place together, yet they are the place.

When Jesus spoke of an afterlife place he painted it symbolically by picturing a house with guest rooms. By preparing a place for you in the house of God, Jesus is preparing a place for you in the Father’s heart. He’s speaking of something much more heavy duty than lodging. He’s talking about moving into the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and their relationship of mutual love, admiration, and respect. He’s talking about utter union with God. God is our home.

Abode and abide: He’s talking about a marriage

In the archaeological excavations of Capernaum, Bethsaida, and other New Testament Jewish villages, we have learned that rooms were often added onto houses. It’s believed that when a son married, his father added a room on the house for the son and his bride. The new wife thus joined the household of her father-in-law.

Among Palestinians in modern Israel there is a similar practice. The Quran prohibits borrowing even to build a home, and Palestinians, even if they aren't particularly religious, might nevertheless avoid borrowing. So they build the first floor only when they have the money saved. But, they put very tall rebar in place to support another floor that they plan to build later when funds again are available. The purpose of such a building project is often a marriage.

A friend of mine who lives in a village on the Mount of Olives completed the third floor of his home on the occasion of his son’s marriage. But rather than give the third floor to his son and new daughter-in-law, my friend moved up to the third floor with his wife. Two older sons (already married) moved from the first to the second floor. The newlyweds got the first floor.

So when Jesus said that he goes to his Father to prepare a room for you in his father’s house, he’s likely referring to exactly what would happen in his culture when a son goes to his father to prepare a room for him and his new bride. Jesus is implying that his followers are “brides.” The bride lives in a new room prepared by the Son in the Father’s house. It’s a beautiful metaphor of relationship.

The relationship the believer has with Jesus is likened to a marriage relationship, arguably the most intimate human union possible. The two become one flesh. (Genesis 2:21; Matthew 19:5-6; Mark 10:8; 1 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 5:31) This bride and groom analogy matches the verses in the Bible that refer to the church as Jesus’ bride.

Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,

Revelation 19:7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready;

Revelation 21:2 And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Revelation 21:9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb."

On the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested, records John, the same night that he spoke of the vine and the branches, Jesus comforted his disciples by telling them that after his and their deaths that they will be in a union not unlike a marriage. Their union will be like when a groom moves with his new bride into a new room in his father’s house. Abide in me, he said. You can’t get much closer than marital union. And you can’t get much closer than the relationship between a vine and a branch. Jesus again says it’s all about relationship in this age and in the age to come.

5.     The meaning

My father was a hospital chaplain in Atlanta for about 25 years. Terminally ill patients spoke with him about death and the afterlife. He says that almost everyone he listened to over the years expressed not a hope for afterlife accommodations, but a hope for continuing relationship. They were more interested in “whom” than “where.” Those facing death in the hospital were yearning not for fancy accommodations, but for a person.

Likewise, Jesus, rather than focusing on the vistas of afterlife acreage, focused on the very personal relationships with God that people yearn for even in the facing of their own deaths. The Bible describes that personal relationship as a place: a home, a paradise like Eden, a New Jerusalem, and a marriage. But as far as the Bible is concerned, the persons of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are that place.

Revelation 21:22   I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. (emphasis mine)

We yearn for this “place” because the scriptures say that we are wired for relationship with persons (the persons of the Trinity and the persons all around us). This place is about persons, not upholstery.

For more on Jesus' parables see my blogs The Absurd Parable of the Unforgiving SlaveThe God Who GamblesParable of the Vine and BranchesThe Crooked ManagerThe Friend at MidnightHeaven Is Like a Crazy FarmerHe Speaks Of . . .Salted With FireTalking Sheep and GoatsIs Your Eye Evil?Two Prodigals and Their Strange FatherThe Lazarus Parable Is Not About the Afterlife,and Jesus Used Parables Like a Sieve.

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