Exegetical Exercise

Image - medieval illumination

A vineyard

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, March 19 is John 15:1-17:

(1) “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. (2) He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. (3) You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. (4) Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. (5) I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (6) Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (7) If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (8) My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (9) As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. (10) If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. (11) I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

(12) This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (13) No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (14) You are my friends if you do what I command you. (15) I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (16) You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. (17) I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Some background: The text is from the gospel of John; the gospel of John is the latest of the gospels, probably written towards the end of the first century CE, maybe around 85 CE, although there are new arguments recently that would make it out to be a more recent document. It is overall very different in tone and style from the synoptic gospels, and some scholars have the idea that John’s gospel is the story of Jesus as remembered by a different community, the Johannine community, from which the other Johannine literature also emanates. Both large and small things differ between John’s gospel and the other three. For instance, the very long speech Jesus gives here is typical for John’s gospel, and is something we don’t see in the other gospels; also, in John, the last supper takes place the night before the celebration of “the Passover of the Jews,” so although it is a last supper with Jesus and his close disciples, it is not “the Passover meal.” At least, that would seem to be entailed by the fact that in John 19:14 “it was the day of Preparation of the Passover” about noon when Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified, so that in John’s gospel, Jesus is crucified on the day of preparation, where in the synoptics Jesus is crucified on the day following the first day of Passover, but which is the day of preparation for the Sabbath.

Ch. 15 is part of Jesus long discourse at the last supper, which begins in ch. 13 (with Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet) and seems to me to wind up in ch. 17 with Jesus’ long prayer for the disciples. [At the end of ch. 14 Jesus says “let us leave,” but then there’s no more reference to movement until the beginning of ch. 18, “When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley” to “a garden” (we think, the Garden of Gethsemane, identified for us by the other gospels).

Here are my additional notes on this text:

Verses 1-6: The extended metaphor of the vine, Jesus is “the vine,” the Father is “the vinegrower” or in some versions “vinedresser” (in Gk. my recollection is the word is georgios, so, “George”), the disciples (also us?) are “the branches.” The branches bear fruit when they abide in the vine.

Between verse 2 – the Father removes every branch that does not bear fruit – and verse 6 – whoever does not abide in Jesus is thrown away like a branch and withers; fruitless branches are gathered up to be burned – there is some sense of threat in this metaphor.

In verse 2 the verb translated “prunes” and in verse 3 translated “cleansed” is the Greek kathairo, also the source of our word “catharsis,” so – the sense of removing or eliminating something to leave something or someone healthier or better off.

Verses 4-10 take up the theme of “abiding” – the verb “abide” (menō) is repeated 11 times in these 6 verses, and implied once. It is sometimes translated “remain,” “stay,” “endure,” “persevere,” etc. – in other words, always conveying the sense of staying in, rather than leaving, some place or condition. In v. 4 Jesus uses the imperative: “abide in me as I abide in you”; then follows this up with commentary: the branches need to abide in the vine to bear fruit; those who do abide in Jesus will bear fruit; those who don’t, won’t; abiding is a condition for access to divine power (verse 7).

In v. 9, the imperative is qualified: “abide in my love,” with which Jesus has loved the disciples “as the Father has loved me.” This will happen if the disciples keep Jesus’ commandments (verse 10).

The structure of verses 9-10 creates an elegant mirror image: the relationship between the Father and Jesus is the model for the relationship between Jesus and the disciples (“as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you”), and the relationship between Jesus and the Father is to form the model for the future relationship of the disciples to Jesus (“just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”)

Verses 9-10 are also a hinge, where the discourse on abiding overlaps the discourse on love.

Verses 9-17 develop the theme of “love” – the verb “love” (Greek agapaō, to love, prefer, wish well, have regard for the welfare of …) occurs in some form 5 times; some form of the noun “love” (Greek agape) occurs 4 times. The disciples have been told to abide in Jesus’ love; they will do this if they keep Jesus’ commandments; the commandment is stated explicitly in v. 12: “love one another as I have loved you” (an echo of v. 9: Jesus has followed the Father’s example; the disciples are to follow Jesus’ example); in v. 13 the criterion of love is “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” in v. 14 the disciples are identified as friends (if they do what he commands, namely, love one another this way); with the desired result of this sequence of commandments (“abide,” “love”) being this love for one another (v. 17)

The theme of “fruit” weaves its way through the whole chapter. The word “fruit” is repeated seven times. The Father attends to the production of fruit by the vine. Fruit is a consequence of abiding in the vine. The Father is glorified by Jesus’ followers bearing fruit, becoming disciples, and obtaining what is asked for as a consequence of abiding in Jesus. (v. 7-8). The discussion of fruit gives way to the discussion of love, and then is taken up again in verse 16: the disciples are appointed to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, and that will be the occasion of the disciples obtaining what they ask for from the Father in Jesus’ name. The reprise of the fruit language is immediately followed by a repetition of the instruction to love one another.

We are left with the impression that the “fruit” Jesus is talking about IS the love for one another the disciples are to have, since they will bear “fruit” when they abide in Jesus “the vine,” and they will love one another when they abide in Jesus’ love and keep his commandment to love. They will bear fruit because of the activity of the Father, the vinegrower, that works to produce fruit; they will love because of the love of the Father that works in Jesus to model love that the disciples are to practice, and that constitutes the “word” that has “pruned” them and that Jesus has made known to them (v. 15).

So then this raises the question of just how much we identify with the disciples. Are we also the disciples to whom Jesus is speaking, and do we keep Jesus’ commandment to love one another? Do we see this fruit of abiding in Christ’s love in our common life?

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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