Last spring, I built a garden for the first time in my backyard. I grew a variety of vegetables: beets, cucumbers, acorn squash, carrots, shallots and, of course, tomatoes. I learned a lot about gardening and gained a greater appreciation for the natural world. And in some small way, I tasted the labors my forebears embraced to survive for hundreds of generations. Gardening even increased my appreciation for some of the agricultural references in the Bible. I didn’t prune a grape vine, but last summer, I pruned my tomato plants. To cut off all those little shoots went against my inclination that “more is better.” But, at the advice of my green thumb father, I pruned the branches. Branches that were already bearing fruit then produced big, delicious, red tomatoes in abundance. Pruning made already fruitful branches even more fruitful.
So, now that I have done the work, I understand the purpose of a vinedresser: to prune the branches that bear fruit. For the branches to bear fruit, they must remain in the vine, or the stem, which allows the flower to draw life from the plant. The life of the plant bears fruit through the branch; the branch doesn’t bear fruit on its own. The Apostle John teaches his readers to love “in deed and truth” and “not in word or speech.” Faith without works is dead. It is not enough to “say” one is a disciple, or to check a box on a survey that “says” one is Catholic, or to just “think” that the commandments are important. To be a disciple, one must believe and love and follow the Lord from the depths of the heart all the way out to the actions of the body. Then, the branch will remain in the vine. To remain in the vine, the disciple must live his or her life in Christ. The disciple must trust in the Lord and His commandments in order to observe the commandments in daily life.
Sometimes, when I hear a commandment, or a teaching of the Church, I want someone to prove to me “why” I should follow it before I am willing to follow it. The reality is, I won’t understand the “why,” until I do the “do.” For example, St. Paul says, “pray without ceasing.” And until I actually try to pray without ceasing, I won’t understand why this commandment is worth following. I think here is where faith is important. I may not understand all the “whys” for all the things I need to “do” to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It’s ok. First, I need to learn to trust the Lord, to trust His Word: to have faith. Not a blind faith, but a faith that seeks understanding. And then, as I walk in His commandments, I will understand His commandments. If I wait until I “understand” before I begin to “do,” I will not understand and I will not bear fruit.
So, I pruned my tomato plants and they bore fruit. Our spiritual lives must be pruned as well in order for us to bear fruit. The word used in the Gospel for pruning is related to “catharsis” which means “to purify.” In our life in Christ, we remain in Christ: in faith and in deed. The Father will prune us, He will purify us. Pruning may come in the form of trials and tribulations from the outside. Or pruning may come from within when we willingly drive sinful thoughts and habits from our hearts. But, nonetheless, if we remain in Christ, and observe His commandments, He will give us His life in return, and we will bear much fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.