John in July: Vina and the Golden Vine (Jn 15)

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Pruning and Winnowing

At the end of June, I stayed a couple nights at a Cistercian monastery in a town called Vina, a few hours north of Berkeley. They grow their own grapes and work with a fifth-generation winemaker to produce some pretty good wine, which they invite retreatants to enjoy at their wine-tasting bar. Along with reading, relaxing, praying with the brothers (even at 3 am!), I spent time walking prayerfully through their beloved vines. I learned that the vines need to be pruned so that they do not grow inwards into a tangled mass, thus producing superfluous branches and second-rate grapes. The branches need adequate water and sunlight and unless they’re pruned they won’t get this. “The vine-dresser,” N.T. Wright says, “is never closer to the vine, taking more thought over its long-term health and productivity, than when he has the knife in his hand” (Wright, John for Everyone, 71). Since my girlfriend has been away in Europe for a couple months, I’ve been trying to take care of her plants and I occasionally need to prune the basil plant by pinching off its flowers. Apparently, the flowers are a sign that the plant is shutting down and shifting into reproductive mode rather than growing mode. Without pruning, the basil plant will stop producing basil leaves, which means we can’t make anymore pesto, which means the plant is useless.

I see the pruning of the vine as another way of talking about the winnowing discussed in chapter 11. The branches that are thrown into the fire are not the innocent scapegoats, but rather the scapegoating. John uses the imagery of chaff and fruitless branches to describe the parts of the human community that contribute to violent scapegoating. In order for the community to be fruitful, this chaff and these branches need to go.

The Golden Vine and the Return of the Green-Eyed Monster

The Hebrew prophets used the vine as a symbol for Israel and the vinedresser as a symbol for God. In this chapter, Jesus puts his own spin on the metaphor not by identifying with the vinedresser but by identifying with the vine itself. By saying “true” vine, Jesus comes across as polemical, contrasting with some sort of false vine. Is he referring to Israel as the false vine? Or is he referring to the golden grapevine that was draped across the four columns at the entrance of Herod’s temple, about which Josephus writes? I think it is most likely the latter. According to the Mishnah, Jewish people would give money to the temple (by making a freewill offering) and, in return, receive a golden leaf with their name on it, which would then be attached to the golden vine for everyone to see. Just as Jesus challenges this kind of glory from others in the Sermon on the Mount, he does the same thing her by essentially calling this golden vine a false vine.

Jesus presents his listeners with the option of attaching either to the false golden vine from which they will receive honor and glory from others or to the true vine, which is the love and friendship that he himself embodies, which will make them vulnerable to the world’s hate. The love and friendship he embodies seem to represent the true Israel while the prestige and envy associated with the golden vine seem to represent the false Israel.

The golden vine can easily be hijacked by the green-eyed monster that I mentioned in chapter 3, who arouses envy and jealousy in others. This green-eyed monster is an expression of the Accuser. Envy works in us by essentially convincing us that God has not given us what we need to live a full and happy life. Envy is accusing God of failing to be God. Envy, I believe, contributes to violent scapegoating and so therefore envy, like the chaff and bare branches, needs to go.

Aelred of Rievaulx and the True Vine

The true vine of love and friendship inspires and energizes us to embrace God’s gifts with gratitude and share them with others. This is what it means to be fruitful. To give of ourselves, even to the point of laying down our lives for our friends: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:12). Living according to this friendship and love and refusing to play the games of the green-eyed monster will makes us vulnerable to becoming innocent victims, to be hated without cause (15:25), just like the prophets and just like Jesus.

When I was at Vina, I spent some time reading about my favorite English Cistercian author Aelred of Rievaulx. He is known as the patron saint of friendship and bromance and he wrote a treatise called De spiritali amicitia (“On Spiritual Friendship”). When I was teaching a class on English Spirituality and Mysticism last spring, we read some of this treatise and I led the class in a spiritual practice, influenced by Buddhist metta meditation. It was great to spend more time with him at Vina. He always helps me appreciate the gifts around me, especially the gifts of friendship. I think one way of growing attached to the true vine that is Christ is by joyfully and gratefully tapping into the love and friendship that surrounds us. Aelred of Rievaulx tapped into the life-giving and fruit-producing power of the true vine and he encourages me to do the same, especially when I read a passage like this:

“The day before yesterday as I was walking around the monastery with the brothers sitting in a most loving circle, I marveled at the leaves, blossoms, and fruits of each single tree as if I were in the fragrant bowers of paradise. Finding not one soul whom I did not love and, I was sure, not one soul by whom I was not loved, I was filled with a joy that surpassed all the delights of the world. Indeed, as I felt my spirit flowing into them all and the affection of all coursing through me, I could say with the prophet, ‘See how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to live in unity’” (III. 82).

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