This comparison of the chosen people with a vine was used in the
Old Testament: Psalm 80 speaks of the uprooting of the vine in Egypt
and its re-planting in another land; and in Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard
(5:1-7) God complains that despite the care and love He has lavished
on it, His vineyard has yielded only wild grapes. Jesus previously used
this imagery in His parable about the murderous tenants (Matthew
21:33-43) to signify the Jew’s rejection of the Son and the calling of
the Gentiles. But here the comparison has a different, more personal
meaning: Christ explains that He Himself is the true vine, because the
old vine, the original chosen people, has been succeeded by the new
vine, the Church, whose head is Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:9). To be
fruitful one must be joined to the new, true vine, Christ: it is no longer a
matter of simply belonging to a community but of living the life of Christ,
the life of grace, which is the nourishment which passes life on to the
believer and enables him to yield fruits of eternal life. This image of the
vine also helps understand the unity of the Church, Christ’s mystical
body, in which all the members are intimately united with the head and
thereby are also united to oneanother (1 Corinthians 12:12-26; Romans
12:4-5; Ephesians 4:15-16).
2. Our Lord is describing two situations: that of those who, although
they are still joined to the vine externally, yield no fruit; and that of
those who do yield fruit but could yield still more. The Epistle of St.
James carries the same message when it says that faith alone is not
enough (James 2:17). Although it is true that faith is the beginning of
salvation and that without faith we cannot please God, it is also true
that a living faith must yield fruit in the form of deeds. “For in Christ
Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith
working through love” (Galatians 5:6). So, one can say that in order
to produce fruit pleasing to God, it is not enough to have received
Baptism and to profess the faith externally: a person has to share
in Christ’s life through grace and has to cooperate with Him in His
work of redemption.
Jesus uses the same verb to refer to the pruning of the branches as
He uses to refer to the cleanness of the disciples in the next verse:
literally the translation should run: “He cleanses him who bears fruit
so that he bear more fruit”. In other words, He is making it quite
clear that God is not content with half-hearted commitment, and
therefore He purifies His own by means of contradictions and
difficulties, which are a form of pruning, to produce more fruit. In this
we can see an explanation of the purpose of suffering: “Have you not
heard the Master Himself tell the parable of the vine and the branches?
Here we can find consolation. He demands much of you for you are
the branch that bears fruit. And He must prune you ‘ut fructum plus
afferas”: to make you bear more fruit’.
“Of course: that cutting, that pruning, hurts. But, afterwards, what
richness in your fruits, what maturity in your actions” ([St] J. Escriva,
“The Way”, 701).
3. After washing Peter’s feet Jesus had already said that His Apostles
were clean, though not all of them (cf. John 13:10). Here, once more,
He refers to that inner cleansing which results from accepting His
teachings. “For Christ’s word in the first place cleanses us from errors,
by instructing us (cf. Titus 1:9) […]; secondly, it purifies our hearts of
earthly affections, filling them with desire for Heavenly things […];
finally, His word purifies us with the strength of faith, for `He cleansed
their hearts by faith’ (Acts 15:9)” (St. Thomas Aquinas, “Commentary
on St. John, in loc.”).
4-5. Our Lord draws more conclusions from the image of the vine and
the branches. Now He emphasizes that anyone who is separated from
Him is good for nothing, like a branch separated from the vine. “You see,
the branches are full of fruit, because they share in the sap that comes
from the stem. Otherwise, from the tiny buds we knew just a few months
back, they could not have produced the sweet ripe fruit that gladdens the
eye and make the heart rejoice. Here and there on the ground we may
find some dry twigs, lying half-buried in the soil. Once they too were
branches of the vine; now they lie there withered and dead, a perfect
image of barrenness: `apart from Me, you can do nothing'” ([St] J.
Escriva, “Friends of God”, 254).
The life of union with Christ is necessarily something which goes far
beyond one’s private life: it has to be focused on the good of others;
and if this happens, a fruitful apostolate is the result, for “apostolate,
of whatever kind it be, must be an overflow of the interior life” ([St] J.
Escriva, “Friends of God”, 239). The Second Vatican Council, quoting
this page from St. John, teaches what a Christian apostolate should be:
“Christ, sent by the Father, is the source of the Church’s whole
apostolate. Clearly then, the fruitfulness of the apostolate of lay people
depends on their living union with Christ; as the Lord Himself said: `He
who abides in Me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart
from Me you can do nothing’. This life of intimate union with Christ in
the Church is maintained by the spiritual helps common to all the faithful,
chiefly by the active participation in the Liturgy. Laymen should make
such a use of these helps that, while meeting their human obligations
in the ordinary conditions of life, they do not separate their union with
Christ from their ordinary life; but through the very performance of their
tasks, which are God’s will for them, actually promote the growth of\
their union with Him” (“Apostolicam Actuositatem”,4).
6. If a person is not united to Christ by means of grace he will
ultimately meet the same fate as the dead branches–fire. There is a
clear parallelism with other images our Lord uses–the parables of the
sound tree and the bad tree (Matthew 7:15-20), the dragnet (Matthew
13:49-50), and the invitation to the wedding (Matthew 22:11-14), etc.
Here is how St. Augustine comments on this passage: “The wood of
the vine is the more contemptible if it does not abide in the vine, and
the more glorious if it does abide….For, being cut off it is profitable
neither for the vinedresser nor for the carpenter. For one of these only
is it useful–the vine or the fire. If it is not in the vine, it goes to the fire;
to avoid going to the fire it must be joined to the vine” (“In Ioann.
Evang.”, 81, 3).
Reflection from “The Navarre Bible: Text and Commentaries”