In preparing for the study I'm leading at the local prison I came across something that shed new light (for me) on Jesus' "I am the vine" discourse in the Gospel of John.
The insight came by coming to understand how a particular song in the book of Isaiah shaped Israel's understanding of her experience of exile. The song comes from Isaiah 5.1-7:
Now I will sing for the one I loveThe "Song of the Vineyard", as some translations designate the song, starts with verses telling the story of the "beloved" who creates and plants a vineyard and is now waiting for a sweet harvest. But Verse 2 ends on an ominous note.
a song about his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a rich and fertile hill.
He plowed the land, cleared its stones,
and planted it with the best vines.
In the middle he built a watchtower
and carved a winepress in the nearby rocks.
Then he waited for a harvest of sweet grapes...
...but the grapes that grew were bitter.The song then turns, in verses 3-4, to compare Israel to the disappointing vineyard.
Now, you people of Jerusalem and Judah,Given that Israel has yielded "bitter grapes" despite all that God had done, the song concludes with God's judgments.
you judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could I have done for my vineyard
that I have not already done?
When I expected sweet grapes,
why did my vineyard give me bitter grapes?
Now let me tell youThis Song of the Vineyard shaped how Israel explained her exile. Failing to produce "sweet grapes" Israel is now "overgrown" with oppression, no longer protected by "walls" and "trampled" by "animals" (read: Romans). What was once a "pleasant garden" is now "destroyed."
what I will do to my vineyard:
I will tear down its hedges
and let it be destroyed.
I will break down its walls
and let the animals trample it.
I will make it a wild place
where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed,
a place overgrown with briers and thorns.
I will command the clouds
to drop no rain on it.
The nation of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
The people of Judah are his pleasant garden.
He expected a crop of justice,
but instead he found oppression.
He expected to find righteousness,
but instead he heard cries of violence.
The hearers of Jesus' message understood themselves to be in the state of exile as expressed in the Song of the Vineyard. The messianic expectation was that the Messiah would come as a second Moses to lead a second Exodus. Given this expectation a part of Jesus' Kingdom-message was to proclaim the end of exile in his own ministry and person. And one way Jesus does this is by proclaiming a new ending to the Song of the Vineyard:
John 15.1-8What I found interesting about the exilic connection with Jesus' vine imagery is that I'd always considered "I am the vine" to simply be a quaint horticultural metaphor. But in the minds of Jesus' audience the image of a "true vine" that "bears fruit" to the glory of God is a radical and epic proclamation. It is the revolutionary proclamation that in the person of Jesus the long exile of Israel has ended.
“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.
“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.