Vineyards and vine cultivation was practiced in very specific regions in the ancient world. In the Bible it appears that Noah is the first to plant a vine (Gen. 9:20). As time went by the Sorek Valley in the foothills of southwest Jerusalem became Israel’s wine-making center (Is. 5:2; Jer. 2:21) and the area even had its own unique dark red grape. Not only did vine growing take several years to establish, preparing the terrace gardens for the vineyards required labor-intensive construction and maintenance. But the financial reward could be great since countries like Egypt did not have any regions good for grape-growing and therefore imported all their wine.
The fact that vines are generally not cultivated from seeds but from plant cuttings and shoots is perhaps the most interesting aspect of vine growing. Once established the vine could be manipulated in several ways. Besides working the vine into a vineyard it could also be draped over a trellis, trained to climb a tree, or allowed to trail on the ground. If a family or person was able to plant a vineyard it was a sign of a permanent settlement. So the promise of houses, fields and vineyards returning to Israel after the exile in Jer. 32:15 probably gave a strong sense of hope to those who heard it. And while most of us think of rows and rows of plush grape-laden vines when we think of a vineyard, Isaiah painted a different view of one in Is. 5:1-7. The grapes of this vineyard are “beh-oo-seem” (phonetical spelling), which is usually translated as wild but actually means rotten. The prophet explains that the useless vineyard in his parable represents the faithless house of Israel and its lack of response to the tender care of Yahweh. Vineyards appear throughout the Scriptures in a number of scenarios (Ex. 22:5, 11; Lev. 19:10; Num. 22:24; Dt. 24:21; Jud. 15: 1-8; 21:13-25; 1 Sam. 8:14-15; Prov. 24:30; 31:16; Song. 2:10-13; Is. 16:10; Jer. 48:33; Mt. 20:1-16; Lk. 13:6-8; 1 Cor. 9:7; and more!) so it is no surprise that Jesus used a vine as one of His greatest illustrations.
In John 15:1 Jesus uses imagery from the vineyard and proclaims, “I am the True Vine and My Father is the Vine-dresser” and again in verse 5 by saying, “I am the Vine and you are the branches”. As the “true” vine, Jesus is opposite of that which is false. Some vines may produce beautiful berries, but if they’re not edible, you’d better not eat them! As the Vine-dresser, God the Father cultivates the vine by pruning away dead branches when they cease to bear fruit. As the branches of Jesus’ vine, His disciples are to remain connected to Him. For some this passage may evoke concern over the permanence of salvation, but it’s very important to keep the principles you draw out of a passage within the context. The point here is not which branches will stay and which branches will be burned; the point is that fruitless branches are, well…fruitless! As any vintner knows, branches which don’t produce fruit deplete nutrients and water from the branches that do. So the branches which are healthy are therefore the ones the farmer wants to invest his time and energy on. Simply put, Jesus is conveying the idea that we should stay connected to Him because that is the way our lives will be fruitful. And not only will we be fruitful, we will also bring glory (doe-kah-zo) that is, recognition, honor and praise, to the One who tends our branch.
Italy and France had long been powerhouses when it came to producing “the fruit of the vine” but in 1973 that changed. At a competition held in New York State 14 experts blind tasted and ranked 23 Chardonnays from France, California and New York. The results were shocking! The top four spots went to California wines. Three years later a similar event took place in France and once again, American wines landed in the winning spots. It is a prestigious moment to win a wine competition, but Jesus says it is a far greater accomplishment to bring God glory by producing fruit He is pleased with (Gal. 5:22-23). Are you connected to the True Vine? If yes, then you will be producing the kind of fruit which makes others recognize Who did the tending (Mt. 5:14-16 with a slightly different metaphor). But if you are not, perhaps it is time to reconnect with Jesus, for by remaining separated from Him, you will not be able to produce the fruit He is looking for (Jn. 15:5). Far be it from me to produce a vine with rotten grapes! I pray the same for you also.
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 11/6/2016