“We all came from God and we will return to God,” writes Richard Rohr in Things Hidden — Scripture as Spirituality, “and everything in between is a school of conscious loving.” Jesus’ invitation to “abide” in him means nothing less than to dedicate our lives to growing in complete union with God. The goal of all life is not to achieve private holiness, Rohr goes on to say, but to re-connect with the source of Divine Love imprinted on our soul from before time began. And the test of authentic connection lies in our capacity to reach out in love to all people, especially the most vulnerable, the most rejected and misunderstood, the most belligerent.
In today’s Gospel Jesus uses the image of the vineyard to illustrate that a strong authentic connection with him will bear the kind of fruit God longs for us to bear, enabling our full stature as human beings to reach perfection, capable of love that resembles its divine source.
Examining Jesus’ image, we note that in order for vines to produce grapes for choice wines, some rigorous pruning is required. A vineyard in winter looks like a field of dead stumps. Apart from the life-sap coming from the dead-looking stumps, branches look lifeless. Good grapes grow on second-year branches while the fresh young shoots are preparing to bear fruit the following year. This is where pruning becomes important and delicate. Sometimes an insect can block the flow of sap, and it is only a matter of time before the branch turns brittle and breaks off. The manner of tending and pruning the vines greatly determines their productivity.
Likewise, the way our lives are pruned, guided and shaped determines to a great extent our fruitfulness. One of God’s choice vines was St. Paul. His conversion story illustrates vividly the ruthless pruning and “turning” that needed to happen in him in order to become one of the first great evangelizers in the service of the Gospel of Christ. So dramatic was his conversion that the apostles had trouble believing it to be for real, as we hear in today’s first reading.
Now Jesus’ use of the vineyard image is nothing new to his hearers. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel was often depicted as God’s choice vine, God’s chosen people. When Israel failed to live up to its covenant with God, Scripture refers to the vines producing “wild fruit” or no fruit (Isaiah 5), and mentions the severe pruning hand of the vinedresser. For Israel the test of good fruit, of an authentic connection with its God, lie in how it treated the most vulnerable among them — the widows, orphans and strangers.
Is it any wonder then that the test of our faith commitment to Jesus is the measure of love we generously give and receive, especially to those most in need among us. “Believe in the name of Jesus Christ and love one another,” says John in his letter today. Thus believing and loving are the two hallmarks of Jesus’ followers. Love is the divine commodity of choice. Believing and loving illustrate the deep abiding in God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Love is also the primary ingredient in stable families. Love is the primary measure of health between spouses, between parents and children. Like God himself, any good parent walks with us, protects us, guides us, comforts us, cajoles us, pulls on our heart strings, and prunes us. Both God and parents know that beloved children sometimes need a firm hand, need to be drawn out of the swamp, need to be pruned of all the things that obstruct abundant fruitfulness of life. And like God, parents do not withdraw their love for their offspring, no matter how far we stray. While Jesus compares God with a vinedresser who skillfully yet ruthlessly cuts off dead, unproductive and sickly branches, mothers and fathers are much like the prodigal father in Luke’s Gospel, eagerly waiting for wayward children (young and old!) to return, to restore right perspective, and to reconnect to the family vine.
One of my own family stories has become very precious to me, because it illustrates so well today’s Gospel. We had all gathered for Thanksgiving Dinner — all except one. Our 19-year-old daughter had been living with relatives in Europe for well over a year. We phoned her just before we dug into the turkey. After exchanging well-wishes, news and laughter through the speaker-phone, she asked: “What day is it today?” Well, duh, Thanksgiving of course. “Yes, I know that, but what date is it? Have you all forgotten today’s anniversary?” We looked around the table, sharing a common puzzled look. Then her voice, crystal-clear halfway across the globe, sounded across the table: “Exactly two years ago today, Grandpa died at 3:30 in the afternoon. Am I the only one who remembers?!” Our glances changed from puzzled to sheepish and embarrassed. How could we have forgotten? The one we least expected it from, the one furthest away, reminded us of the importance to remain connected to the family vine.
Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. Abiding in him, we will bear much fruit, God’s fruit of love and mercy, justice and peace.
Ternier-Gommers, wife, mother and grandmother, is a retreat leader and spiritual director, freelance writer and author of two books. She has worked in diocesan and parish ministry, in ecumenical dialogues and ministry, and co-ordinates an ecumenical network of women in ministry. Visit her website at www.prairie-encounters.ca and her blog at https://graceatsixty.wordpress.com