In yesterday’s post I suggested a classic misreading of John 15:1-2. I began by sharing my discomfort with Jesus appearing to suggest that if you have a fruitful life then God (as the Vinedresser) will prune you so that you bear even more fruit, however if you are not bearing fruit then the Vinedresser will cut you off. Take you away.
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. -John 15:1-2 (NIV)
I proposed that this sort of reading reinforces some of the inherent problems with the American Dream. Namely, just work hard and do right and the system (aka, God) will reward you! But don’t, and it/God won’t.
Which creates more of the dynamic of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. And that sort of movement towards income inequality is not only the worse thing for a society across the board, it also reeks of anti-Kingdom values.
So where does that leave us?
First Century Viticulture
To better grasp how Jesus’ followers would have understood what he was saying it will help to go back to first century culture and listen to how vinedressers worked their vines.
Pliny the Elder (in addition to being an amazing beer) was a Roman naturalist and philosopher, and in his book Natural History he documents the techniques used in the vineyards.
First the vinedresser builds a trellis for the vine to grow upwards. Soon, some branches begin to grow outwards instead of upwards, and they trail along the ground. This is bad for the vine because it won’t receive the proper aeration or sunlight.
And so, in the springtime (which is when Jesus gave this particular illustration) the vinedresser carefully walks her vineyard and searches for the smaller, newer branches that were growing the wrong direction. Identifying the ones moving along the ground (not producing fruit, because of the aeration and sunlight thing).
She then carefully lifts them up off the ground and attaches them back to the trellis and to the main vine.
Giving them the best opportunity to eventually become a fruitful branch in further seasons.
If the vinedresser did not do this, what would happen is that the branches along the ground would start to grow tiny roots that would connect it to the ground, and at that point its chances of becoming a fruit bearing branch were void.
Pertinent to our discussion, the vinedresser would never simply cut these branches off and take them away before giving them a chance to develop properly.
This is all well and good, Pliny, and we thank you for the history lesson, you might say in response. But the words of Jesus trump some Roman naturalist every time!
You have a decent point, so let’s move from viticulture to translation. Because as it turns out, an investigation of the Greek reveals that perhaps Jesus was acutely aware of the vinedresser’s techniques, and his illustration fit accordingly.
In the Greek the word translated in John 2 as “cut off” is the word airo. And, as you may have guessed already, airo doesn’t only mean “cut off.” Actually, the most common usage for airo is “to lift up” or “to raise.” John used it elsewhere like this:
“Jesus said to him, “Get up! Airo your mat and walk.” (upon healing the lame man in John 5)
“So they airo’d stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and left the temple.” (when Jesus said he was greater than Abraham in chapter 8)
“So they removed the stone. Jesus airo’d his eyes and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me.” (praying to God, before raising Lazarus in chapter 11)
To be sure, airo can and does mean “take away” or “cut off,” depending on the context.
But here’s my suggestion: in light of what we know about first century viticulture, and in light of how John used airo in other instances, the best way to understand Jesus’ words in John 15 is that he said,
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He lifts up any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit.”
It’s All About the Fruit
This reading of Jesus’ words not only match the Greek and fit with first century viticulture practices, but it also aligns up beautifully with the heart of God.
At a fundamental level I believe that God’s posture is for us, not against us.
I believe that God is actually interested in you and me coming to experience the abundant life that Jesus came to offer.
I believe that the Vinedresser is vigilantly working the fields to move Her branches towards the place where they can be the most fruitful.
And what does a life that bears fruit look like?
Well, it certainly isn’t a life that is full of material blessings. Whatever we think about God, we must genuinely imagine that God’s ways of blessing people have got to be more creative, more lasting, more impactful than a 21st century view of capitalism and the American Dream.
The Apostle Paul imagined it like this,
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. -Galatians 5
Now that’s true living.
That is a type of life that the Vinedresser wants you and me to move towards.
Tomorrow I’ll close this series by offering some thoughts on these two moves of the Vinedresser: the lifting up and the pruning.