Grapevines are a remarkable sort of plant. Rooted in the ground, their tendrils reach out and travel, sometimes, for hundreds of feet. Close to the base, they’re thick and woody. Out by the bunches of grapes, they’re green, pliant and flexible.
To establish a grapevine is the work not of a single growing season, but of years. Grapevines are a perennial. If tended carefully, they’ll continue to yield grapes for year after year.
Their natural tendency is to grow close to the ground, but that’s not what the vinegrowers want to see. They want to raise the vines up, so the grape clusters will hang down for easy harvesting – and also to prevent the vines from sending tendrils snaking across the earth, to take root willy-nilly. Nowadays, vineyard owners support their vines with complex webs of steel or plastic cables, strung between posts of one kind or another. Back then, it was a matter of driving wooden stakes into the ground, and tying the grapevines to them.
Then, as now, the most productive grapevines are the ones suspended over the earth. Their leaves create a canopy overhead, drinking in the sunlight. The shady area beneath is perfect for the grapes, so they retain their moisture and sweetness.
Most grapevines won’t produce much for several years. The work of creating a vineyard is therefore something of an act of faith for the vinegrower. Those early years are devoted to carefully staking and tending the grapevines, knowing that, once they begin to bear fruit, they will yield abundantly, season after season.
Part of the work of vinegrowing is pruning. The vine’s natural tendency is to send tendrils snaking out all over the place, and grow only a few bunches of grapes. Most of the water and nutrients in an untended grapevine go to producing those woody stalks. By diligently walking up and down among the plants, and cutting off all but a few of the soft, green tendrils before they harden into wood, the vinegrower diverts the plant’s energy into bearing fruit.
The image of a grapevine is a common one in the Hebrew Scriptures. Several of the prophets rely on it as a metaphor for the people of Israel. In the prophets’ imagination, God is the vinegrower, dismayed to see that the vines have been left to grow wild. The only thing to do in such a situation is to cut down the grapevines and burn them – for the wood of a grapevine is soft and gnarly, good for nothing else. Yes, cut down the shamefully neglected vines, cast them into the fire, and begin all over again, with a new planting!
Surely, Jesus knows these Hebrew prophecies, as do his listeners. Yet, when he reaches into his bag of metaphors and pulls out the image of a grapevine, he has a very different intent.
“I am the vine,” he says. That’s an unbelievably radical thing to say! Each of the ancient prophets had taught that the vine is Israel, with God standing off to one side as the vinedresser. Yet, Jesus is different from Isaiah, or Elijah, or Ezekiel, or any of the other great prophets. Jesus is the son of God: God incarnate, the word made flesh. Jesus is saying his spiritual essence is the roots and trunk of the vine itself, and all of God’s people are the branches coming off from it. Their one and only purpose is to bear abundant fruit. Those branches don’t live for themselves. They channel love – the living essence of Jesus Christ, to whom they’re connected – to fulfill God’s purpose of an abundant harvest.
- Carl Wilton, from a sermon, "Entwined," May 6, 2012, Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church, Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey