15:1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.
15:2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
15:3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.
15:4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.
15:5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
15:6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
15:7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
15:8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
A Question or Two:
- Why is there so much agriculture in the Bible?
- So you know enough farmers to be trusted to interpret the Bible?
- What are you going to do about that?
Some Longer Reflections:
Vines. An earth-worker (γεωργός, translated as “vinedresser”). Branches. Bearing fruit.
Or, rather, NOT bearing fruit, since that is the circumstance we meet first. Branches that do not bear fruit are “removed.” The Greek is a bit stronger than that. The verb is αἴρει, which can mean “remove,” or “pick up to throw away,” or “seize violently,” or “destroy.” The word is strong, and the audience would hear the violence.
Interpreters often concentrate on the way unproductive branches are hacked out and hauled away to be burned. I have even heard sermons that took the main point to be: “Bear fruit, or burn!” Such interpretations (even ones that are not so over-the-top) read a double contrast in the scene: 1) between dead branches and branches that bear fruit; and 2) between the destruction of branches that do not produce, and the honoring of those branches that do.
And then comes the next verb: καθαίρει. You do not have to read Greek to see that these two verbs are closely related. In fact, they are the very same verb. The only difference is that the second verb, καθαίρει, has a prepositional prefix. The force of the prefix is to intensify the force of the base verb. So, if αίρει means “to seize violently and destroy,” καθαίρει means something even more violent: “obliterate,” or “reduce to nothing.”
Yes, the word means “prune,” as well. This is not too much of a surprise if you you have watched an actual orchardman prune an actual tree. I had always imagined that pruning involved cutting out a few broken branches, and maybe removing a branch if it crossed over another and rubbed on it. And then I watched as a friend, and orchardman, actually pruned a tree. Pruning involves a LOT of cutting. A LOT. It looks drastic. Violent even.
So καθαίρει is a good word for “prune.”
But I am still struck by the way the second verb surprises the audience. The flow of the story, reinforced by a common assumption (among many Christians in the U.S., anyhow) that REAL religion is about the fork in the road, the sheep and the goats, the faithful and the unfaithful, all this leads many interpreters to read this scene as focusing on Divine Judgment, as threatening destruction for all those who do not measure up.
When translators and interpreters get caught up in this flow, it affects the way they read everything else in the scene. For instance, in Greek, verse 2 begins with the words πᾶν κλῆμα. The word, κλῆμα, means “branch,” and the NRSV translates πᾶν as “every.” But πᾶν is a strange little word in Greek. You can translate it into English as “every,” that is true. But it also means “each,” or”any.” So listen carefully to the options: Jesus could be saying, “Every branch that bears no fruit is taken away to be burned.” Or he could be saying, “Any branch that bears no fruit is taken away to be burned.” Or it could be, “Each branch.”
Which translation implies a bigger fire?
That matters. It shapes the tone of the scene. The more burning branches, the more angry apocalyptic fire driving the theology.
To my ear, “Every” implies a big bonfire burning so hot you could get a sunburn from ten feet away. To my ear, “Each” implies a smaller fire, and “Any” implies that there is a general practice operating here, and if there were, in fact, any branches that simply did not produce, those few branches would be burned. But not in a blazing hot bonfire. I know orchardmen who burn the pruned branches in the wood stove in their saunas, or use the wood to heat their homes. Some use the apple wood to smoke pork. A bonfire would be wasteful, and the real world is not kind to those who waste.
This is one of those scenes that you should read aloud before you decide what it is all about. What you will hear is that the fire is barely mentioned, but over and over Jesus talks about bearing fruit.
This is not a story about destruction. This is a story about being fruitful.
And what does it take for a branch to be fruitful, according to Jesus? In English, Jesus says that you have to “abide.” That sounds both religious and vigorous, and brings to mind older, formal English linguistic anger: “There is one thing I simply cannot abide….”
The Greek word is μένω, and it just means “remain.”
I have worked with actors for many years, now, and they have taught me to pay exquisite attention to verbs. Scenes are built out of verbs, and actors hunt them down and do them with all their might. If the verb says “run,” they run. If the verb says “shatter,” they shatter. And from this physical exploration of the scene they learn how to play their part.
This verb says “remain.” So do what my actors taught me: do the verb. Physically.
(You realize that just means “sit there,” right?)
That’s how you bear fruit.