By Stephen W. Hiemstra
What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? … For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel (Isaiah 5:4-7 ESV).
The metaphor of the vine and the branches is simple, yet disturbing.
At one point when I was working as a chaplain intern in a psyche ward, I overheard a young woman pleading over the phone with her parents to be transferred to another hospital. The reason? She had been given a New Testament and had read all the way to chapter 15 of John’s Gospel. Reading about the vine and the branches she had interpreted the metaphor to mean that, because she had had no children (no fruit in her mind), she stood under God’s judgment. So, she wanted to be transferred to another hospital!
While most of us probably have not understood the metaphor of the vine and the branches quite the same way as this young patient, yet the metaphor is a challenging description of a life of discipleship. For example, verse 6 speaks to the exclusively of Christ in salvation and judgment: If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned (v 6). Neither notion is popular today. Yet even verse 2 is enough to generate serious controversy: Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit (v 2). Branches bearing no fruit get taken away; branches bearing fruit get pruned!
Most discussions of this metaphor of the vine and the branches seem to skip both verses and head immediately for verse 7: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you (v 7). We all love to ask for things! Yet, verse 8 makes it clear that it is the fruit that we bear that makes us Christ’s disciples. Looking back at verse 7, we note that the sentence is conditional–if you abide in me and my words. The Greek word for abide means stay or remain. Bearing fruit is evidence that you abide in Christ. The key to answered prayer is to abide in Christ and bear fruit, as repeated in verse 16.
The love commandment in verse 12 may also disturb a careful reader. The measure of love is found in verse 13: Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (v 13). Jesus did just that–he died on the cross; Jesus is our model. This implies that a life of discipleship requires sacrifice, maybe even death. This implication is underscored in verse 14 when Jesus says: You are my friends if you do what I command you (v 14). Jesus kept the Father’s commands; we are to keep his. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the love commandment embodies not just warm fuzzy feelings on sunny days but also obedience to the entire witness of scripture–especially the law.
Disturbing also is John’s discussion of the world. Jesus says: If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you (v 18). The life of Christ’s disciple is to be modeled after Christ–the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The good news is that we are promised the Spirit of Truth, the Helper–the Holy Spirit–who will bear witness to Christ (vv 28-29).