A reflection on the readings for May 2, 2021 — the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Today’s passage from the Gospel of John is a small section of a larger monologue of Jesus at the Last Supper. It is made up of the first eight verses of the 15th chapter. The passage begins with Jesus identifying himself as the “true vine,” the Father as the vine grower, and his audience as the branches. Jesus draws on this metaphor in light of its use in the Old Testament.
The Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus, his followers, and the very early Church. (The New Testament was written over the course of the first century). The language and imagery of the Old Testament was a lens through which early Christians viewed the world. Because it was so important and familiar to them, the New Testament authors frequently quoted from and alluded to the Old Testament. Today’s passage is an excellent example of how becoming more familiar with the Old Testament helps illuminate our understanding of Jesus’ words.
For example, the image of the vine is used in Psalm 80. This psalm recalls the exodus and conquest narratives by portraying the people of God as a vine brought out from Egypt and planted in the land of Israel. It is described as growing and completely filling the land. Then, the psalmist laments, “Why have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” (v. 13). The psalmist’s concern for the fruit develops into concern for the entire vine: “Those who would burn or cut it down—may they perish at your rebuke” (v. 17). There are noteworthy parallels between this psalm and the passage in John. In Psalm 80, a vine serves as an image of Israel; in John 15, it is an image of the church. In both chapters, the metaphor extends to fruit production (and lack thereof). Finally, they both describe the potential for destruction by others when the fruit is depleted.
We must be sensitive and accurate when drawing on the Old Testament for a better understanding of the New Testament. It is not a foil for the New Testament; rather it infuses the New Testament with meaning. A close reading of the Gospel passage shows that Jesus is drawing on messianic language in Psalm 80 to convey his true identity as Son of God. Psalm 80:15-16 states, “Visit this vine, the stock your right hand has planted, and the son whom you made strong for yourself. Those who would burn or cut it down—may they perish at your rebuke. May your hand be with the man on your right, with the son of man whom you made strong for yourself.” The vine is identified with “the son,” “the man on your right,” and “the son of man.” In other words, it is a prayer for the Davidic king who will bring salvation to Israel.
The vine metaphor is also used throughout chapters 15-19 in the Book of Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 17, the vine represents two different kings of Judah. For example, the seventh verse stays, “Then another great eagle appeared, with wide wingspan, rich in plumage, And see! This vine bent its roots to him, sent out branches for him to water.” Later in the chapter, this is explained as a reference to when the king of the Babylonian empire removed Jehoiachin as king of Judah and replaced him with his uncle Zedekiah. When he did this, he was “binding [Zedekiah] under oath, to be a humble kingdom, without high aspirations” (vv. 13-14). During Zedekiah’s reign, the king of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and exiled the people. Zedekiah was the last king of Judah.
Because the vine was also frequently used as a symbol for the whole nation of Israel, some might think that Jesus has replaced it, when he says “I am the true vine.” But in light of magisterial teaching, this is not how the passage should be understood theologically. The Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews has stated that “the history of Israel did not end in 70 A. D.” By no means was the nation of Israel replaced by Christianity. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis expanded upon Nostra Aetate (itself based on Romans 11), writing that the Jews’ “covenant with God has never been revoked.” It is important—ethically, historically, and theologically—that we do not misinterpret the Bible in a way that promotes replacement theology (the false view that Jesus/Christianity replaced Judaism/Israel). When he identifies himself as the vine—meaning the long-awaited messianic king—Jesus does not erase his own people, the Jews.
The use of the vine metaphor for Jesus as Messiah has particular impact in its context of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. The disciples will soon endure the suffering and death of Jesus by Roman authorities—those who would attempt to burn or cut down the vine, as in Psalm 80. The image of Jesus as the true vine—the Messiah—is hopeful, because it evokes restoration, resurrection, and salvation.
In today’s Gospel passage, the branches either bear fruit and are pruned or don’t bear fruit and are cut off completely. What does it mean that the vine grower, the Father, would cut people off (remember, that’s what the branches represent in the metaphor)? It’s likely that some will assume this represents people being condemned to Hell, but it’s not necessarily about the afterlife. Once again, Ezekiel 15 sheds light on the imagery:
What makes the wood of the vine
Better than the wood of branches
found on the trees in the forest?
Can wood be taken from it
to make something useful?
Can someone make even a peg out of it
on which to hang a vessel?
Of course not! If it is fed to the fire for fuel,
and the fire devours both ends of it,
Leaving the middle charred,
is it useful for anything then?
Even when it is whole
it cannot be used for anything;
So when fire has devoured and charred it,
how useful can it be? (vv. 2-5).
When the branch of a tree is not fruitful and is removed, it can be made into something useful (even a peg). But a branch from a vine, according to Ezekiel, is not sufficient in itself to be made into something useful. Once removed, the only use for a branch from a vine is as fuel for a fire. In the passage in John, the branches are removed because they are not fulfilling their purpose of producing fruit. According to the footnote in the New American Bible, branches were cut off, dried, and used as fuel. In this case the imagery of fire, while no doubt intended to evoke destruction and prompt fear, likely indicates that the cut-off branches now serve a lower purpose than bearing fruit: producing heat in a fire. The fire does not exist for the purpose of destroying the branches (as one might expect if it meant hell). This image also resembles a similar metaphor used by Paul in Romans 11:17. In that epistle, the branches of an olive tree are broken off, but are later grafted back onto the tree. From a human, horticultural point of view, this sounds like nonsense. You would never prune a tree only to attempt later to graft the branches back on. This is a metaphor for God’s limitless mercy. Whenever someone is “cut off,” we must never lose hope for their restoration. Remember Jesus’ words: “What is impossible for human beings is possible for God” (Lk 18:27).
My final point concerning today’s Gospel is its connection to the second reading from the First Letter of John. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says “abide in me” like branches on a vine. What does this mean? In next week’s Gospel reading (like in the second reading today), we read that we remain in Jesus if we keep his commandments (Jn 15:10; 1 Jn 3:22). Today’s second reading clarifies what this means: “And his commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us.” Let us also not ignore the words that begin today’s second reading: “Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” In other words, abiding in Jesus is more than simply words (similar to how many today might offer nothing but “thoughts and prayers” in response to a tragedy). There must be action.
All of this sets the stage for next week’s Gospel reading, which picks up from where today’s Gospel passage ends. In it, Jesus tells us frankly how much more is demanded from his disciples than words alone: he says there is no greater love than laying down one’s life for one’s friends (Jn 15:13). Sometimes, Catholics deride the commandment to love one another as trite, lukewarm, or unserious. Some seem to view Christian love as little more than sentimentality. But Jesus’ command to love, which he lived out in its greatest form, is demanding and requires courage. The cost of discipleship is high, but its reward is even higher: friendship with God.
 “The Old Testament and the Jewish tradition founded upon it must not be set against the New Testament in such a way that the former seems to constitute a religion of only justice, fear and legalism, with no appeal to the love of God and neighbour,” Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration ‘Nostra Aetate,’” III.
 Christopher Blumhofer, The Gospel of John and the Future of Israel (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 177; Cambridge University Press, 2019) 189.
 “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church,” 25.
Image by NickyPe from Pixabay
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Angela Rasmussen has a Ph.D. in biblical studies. She teaches at Georgetown University and The Catholic University of America. She is married with three daughters.