Like an unruly vine, John’s Gospel can be a bit difficult to untangle at times. Written with the poetic flair and Hellenistic influences of the contemporary philosophical milieu of the late First Century CE, the text is filled with little pericopes that sound repetitive and can be stifling for those who prefer the more narrative approach of the synoptics. Yet, there are moments when John’s imagery breaks through the opacity of its style to give us a little nugget of profound insight worthy of significant prayer and reflection.
Such is the case with the famous “I am the vine, you are the branches” discourse in John 5:1-8. While I, like most people, have typically focused on the “remain in me” phrases and the images of the interconnectedness of the Body of Christ joined together by the unifying vine of the Lord, I was struck today by another line that is simple and perhaps without as much attention as it rightfully deserves. After speaking about how God is the vineyard owner, the one who grows, nurtures, and prunes the plant, Jesus says:
You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
Despite its initial mysterious quality, this otherwise enigmatic one-liner seems to be a powerful summary of much of our faith in God’s action in Jesus Christ.
First, the word that Jesus spoke was what, as we read elsewhere in John’s account, was spoken to him by God. Its source is divine and its meaning significant for all of humanity. Just as all action that takes place in the tending to and caring for the vines in a vineyard comes down from the instructions of its owner, so too the instructions passed on to us in the word spoken by Christ come from God.
Second, the word is itself a pruning tool. It cuts away the excess, the ego, the unimportant trivialities, the fears, the anxieties of this world, and creates a space in our lives for the growth of good fruit.
Jesus’s word, as we see in all the Gospel accounts, unsettled those who had something to gain by allowing the burden of unnecessary growth to weigh on the shoulders of others. Comparatively, Jesus’s yoke is easy and burden light.
The question that remains today is whether or not we allow the word of God to speak to our hearts and cut away the excess that burdens our spiritual growth. Can we accept that the message of God in Christ Jesus calls us to cut away that which weighs us down, hampers the production of good fruit, and prevents us from fulling living life? Or do we strive unceasingly to protect those burdens with which we are most comfortable, even if they are killing us physically, emotionally, or spiritually?
May we let the Lord tend the garden of God’s vine.