I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.
– Jn. 15:5
In the second half of the 19th Century, European grape vines were struck by a blight that eventually was discovered to be caused by an insect that destroyed the rootstocks of their vines; French Vineyards especially suffered from this blight which threatened to destroy their wine industry. Pesticides proved to be useless in stemming the blight, but then they found an interesting solution in America where the vine roots had developed immunity to that insect. And so they imported tons of American roots and then grafted French vines on to these roots and saved the vineyards, which bring us to today’s Gospel in a rather interesting way.
How truly rich in meaning is this image chosen by Jesus to help us understand who he is and how we are totally dependent upon Him for life eternal and fruitfulness of that life. We have heard this Gospel many times, and we immediately grasp its central truth, that life comes to us only through Christ who is the vine onto whom we have been grafted by the instrumentality of Baptism. He is the vine and we are his branches.
For weeks now we have been rejoicing in the truth of the resurrection of Jesus, that he has risen from the dead, that He is now alive in the fullest sense, alive in body and soul with the life that is eternal, because it is God’s life. And we have also been meditating on what all this means for us and for the whole world that in a sense is the beneficiary of his death and resurrection. He has died and risen for us; he has died so our sins can be forgiven and we justified; he has risen with new life from the grave to give each of his justified brothers and sisters a share in his eternal life, to give each of us a new life here and now in our very human imperfection, and one day the fullness of that life when he raises us from the dead and seats us with Himself and the whole Church in the glory of His Kingdom.
But how does he do all this for us, already here in this world? The vine and the branches parable teaches us the basic truths about how this takes place in us, and we should meditate on this parable often. There are so many facets to this parable that enlighten our minds and fill our hearts with joy when properly appreciated. He, the Teacher, knew this would delight the faithful.
First of all Jesus is the vine planted by the Father in this world. We are the branches that have been grafted onto Him by workers in the vineyard of the Father, the Apostles of Jesus and their successors. In the great vineyards, the skilled vine tenders are often descendents of generations of skilled workers, and that holds true in the Father’s vineyard as well, their powers, skills and tools (the sacraments) are handed down. They graft each branch onto the one great vine who is Christ, and assure that it gets the care that helps it to take root in the vine and grow and flourish.
But Jesus himself in a sense was grafted onto the root stock of Israel, and he became the plant that produced life and fruit as never before. We know from Science today that when a vine is grafted into a root stock, it is the genetic richness of the vine, called the scion, not the root stock that produces the rich wine in the future production. I am sure this biological discovery pleased the French who were not happy that their great wine depended upon American roots! You know the French.
What that genetic discovery confirms in the parable is that the great fruit produced from the grafting of Jesus onto the root of Israel is from the vine which is Jesus. He is the great vine that has been introduced by the Father into His Vineyard, the source of a wine that Israel could never produce, the richest of wines because it brings eternal life and joy to the heart of men.
But the next grafting involves us, the branched grafted on to the vine of Jesus who was planted in the root of Israel. The Father produced the first grafting, while the Apostles are privileged to graft us onto Christ. But we do not produce the genetic richness of the vine as the vine did to the root plant. All the richness of life and fruitfulness comes to us through the vine. And yet, and this is very important, we do actually produce the fruit whose richness of all produced from the vine and its life flowing through us. Jesus could have said I am the vine and you are the fruit, and that is of course perfectly true, we are the first fruits. But he did not say you are the fruit, the grapes, but the branches that produce the grapes.
This is important for two reasons. First, it make it clear that while Jesus us is the source of all fruitfulness – without me you can do nothing – nonetheless, the fruit is also the produce of the branches; it is our fruit as well as His; his firstly, but ours secondly. We are responsible for the fruit also.
And the second important truth is that not all branches produce the same quantity or quality of grapes. That’s true in the wine vineyards as well. But here again the abundance really depends not on ourselves alone, but on the Father, the Master vine grower Himself who knows just what each branch needs to flourish. Jesus tells us this at the beginning of this Gospel passage: my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. God trims us, and it is inevitably painful to the branch. Here again science is enlightening; for just the right stress has to be produced in vines to bring out the best wine in greatest abundance. Too much stress, the branch withers; just enough and the branch explodes in fruitfulness. The truth is that nothing truly great is produced in this fallen world without passing the stress test.
How loving is the vine Master and the vine. How this rich parable enlightens the source of eternal life and the role of the Cross in our lives. The next time you are suffering anything, meditate on this parable, and trust that great stress, when allowed by God, can be a source of life and rich fruit. If we just allow the Vine Master to do his work, this stress will pass and produce much fruit for us and for the world around us. He knows what we are made of, each of us individually he knows, and He will never allows any of us to be stressed beyond the power of his grace to heal us and to produce an abundant fruit, thirty, sixty and a hundred fold. Jesus promised this, and his promises never fail.