April 29, 2018
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Saul, after his conversion
Ps 22:26-28, 30-32
I will praise you, Lord
1 Jn 3:18-24
We should love one another
I am the vine, you are the branches
The Gospel of John doesn’t have parables, as we find in the other Gospels. Instead we find long discourses, in a style not unlike the letters of John, in fact. But what this Gospel has instead is a couple of major metaphors—the good shepherd, and the vine and the branches. Each of these have parallels in the parables of the other Gospels—the lost sheep, the sheep and goats are familiar examples. Also, the vineyard workers, the vineyard tenants and so forth. But John’s treatment is unique.
In recent years, archaeologists have worked in Galilee to great effect. Much has been learned about the time and place of Jesus’ lifework. One interesting item is the discovery that the Nazareth area seems to have specialized in wineries. Wine is an important foodstuff in the Mediterranean world. In ancient times, alcoholic drink helped to solve the problem of possibly contaminated waters. Another interesting finding emerged from analysis of ancient wine traces. Apparently the wine of the times was sweet. This was not a drink of refined living, but a daily staple.
The image of the vine and the -branches reminds one of another passage that appears only in this Gospel—the story of Jesus changing water into wine at Cana (John 2:1-11). In that case, we have the surprising image of Jesus saving a social occasion, when it was about to become a disaster. There, the teaching seems to be one of affirming good times, and the fundamental need for partying, in addition to that of daily existence. Wedding parties appear in the Scripture as the ultimate human experience of communal celebration. Excess and temporarily suspended schedules are expressions of unlimited joy. The image of God that this presents is one of a creator who wishes his creatures to be happy and live prosperously.
An important word in the passage of the vine is “abide” (in its traditional translation—our Bible prefers “remain”). Sharon Ringe, in her book “Wisdom’s Friends,” regards this passage and the verses immediately follow it (John 5:1-8, 9-17) as a key to John’s teaching about agape love. And the need to “abide” is central to that.
She writes, “It is God on whom the life of the vine depends; it is God who initiates the love for Jesus that he passes on to the others, and it is God who is the source of all that Jesus makes known to them. Second, the theme of ‘abiding’ (meno) is a relationship essential to life: The disciples must abide or remain in Jesus as the branches abide in the vine (vv. 4, 5, 6, 7). Moreover, the disciples must abide in Jesus’ love, just as he abides in God’s love (vv. 9, 10), in order that their ‘fruit’ also should abide (v. 16). Finally, the love in which they are to abide is spelled out as also the content of Jesus’ commandment to them. They are to love one another as he loved them” (Ringe, p. 67).
For the passage continues: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:9-13).
The image is the vine and the branches; the teaching is about the love that marks the life of the disciple, after the manner of Jesus himself.
For reflection: What does it say that wine is one of the eucharistic elements?
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.