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Pruning Branches and Disciples
by Meghan Sullivan

A few weeks ago, I visited my brother and his family in Portland, Oregon. As my brother and sister-in-law showed me around their garden, they told me about how our parents had pruned the plants the last time they visited. “Mom and Dad cut off so much, we didn’t think anything would grow back,” my brother said. Yet, standing in the garden in the middle of June, we were surrounded by lush green bushes and beautiful blossoms parading their pink and white hues.

Catholic writer and speaker Dorothy Ranaghan recounts a similar story about a friend who agreed to prune her grapevine. “It was horrifying,” Ranaghan writes of the experience. “He cut and snipped and hacked away for a while till there was nothing left, or so it seemed. Only three, skinny, primary shoots remained, and these he raised and draped over the wire. This was my grapevine? It didn’t look like it used to at all. Dead wood and weeds I had expected him to remove, but not all that living greenery as well.” Just as my brother and sister-in-law were surprised at the abundant growth of their pruned plants, Ranaghan was shocked to see her grapevine yield a large crop of fruit that year.

In John 15, Jesus’ Farewell Discourse given to His disciples, Jesus compares Himself, God the Father, and His disciples to the image of a vine. “I am the true vine,” Jesus says, “and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit” (Jn. 15:1-2 NRSV). Jesus is not simply a vine; He is the true vine. In the Old Testament, Israel is likened to a vine, and Jews are grafted into Israel. Now, Jesus is the vine, and through baptism, Christians become grafted into Christ as His members, His branches. This meaning becomes clear in verse five, where Jesus tells His disciples, “I am the Vine, you are the branches.”

From the perspective of many 21st century people unfamiliar with agriculture, John 15 sounds painful, even horrifying. Is God really going to cut off parts of us, hack us down until we are unrecognizable? Most scholars agree that the branches that do not bear fruit represent those people who have forsaken Jesus. But even Christians who attempt to follow Jesus on a daily basis may, at times, feel that they have forsaken Jesus. Weighed down by sins, negative attitudes, and bad habits, God’s pruning may feel like punishment. We are not completely incorrect in thinking this. In Jeremiah 5:10, God, angry at Israel’s sins, orders, “Go up through her [Israel’s] vine-rows and destroy, but do not make a full end; strip away her branches, for they are not the Lord’s.” The verse preceding this passage speaks of punishment; thus, the image of pruning a vine is symbolic of punishment here.

We are missing the full picture, though, if we think that God’s pruning serves only this single purpose. A deacon at my church helped me understand this when he said, “Pruning isn’t a bad thing.” From the perspective of those familiar with grapevines and vineyards, John 15 sounds not painful but hopeful. Every vineyard worker knows that pruning even good parts of a grapevine is the way to produce more grapes. Jesus isn’t just saying that we need to be ready to give up the negative parts of ourselves; we also have to be willing to give up positive things. These positive things could be dreams we have, paths we think we should take, decisions we are convinced we can make without God’s help. God doesn’t leave us empty-handed when we give these things to Him, though – God’s promise is greater than that. God prunes us so that we can bear more fruit, have more joy, and live more fully.

1. Ranaghan, Dorothy, “Letting Go,” in Catholic Women’s Devotional Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 1417.

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