Issue 17 - 4 May
The Sundays of the Easter Season often get names, for example, Doubting Thomas Sunday and Good Shepherd Sunday. Last Sunday is regularly called Vine & Branch Sunday.
Until I spent time on a vineyard 10 years ago, I always heard the parable of the vinedresser as a tough, “shape up or ship out” message. I always imagined God as the Vinedresser having a field day loping and cutting my dead branches, trimming my unproductive stems and up-rooting all the rot that undermines my fruitfulness.
It always felt like a violent activity. But what we see is not what we get.
It was a pleasant surprise, then, to actually see a Vinedresser in action. Far from an act of violence, the care paid by the dresser to each stem is extraordinary. He or she carefully inspects the branch, delicately cutting only the smallest amount so that the vine will be healthier and more productive. A good vinedresser pours over the vines and from experience knows that to cut too much or too little will render the vine without its distinctive character. Every cut is measured and aimed to prune back only the diseased branch, so as to bring about greater growth for the whole vine and a bigger yield for the vineyard. The vinedresser is not violent with the vine, but extremely tender.
The first hearers of today’s Gospel would have known that this metaphor is anything but a “shape up or ship out” message.
This parable is a profound insight into the Christian life. We can claim we belong to the Christian family all we like. We can come to Mass every Sunday, but if the fruit we produce is bitter and poisonous, if we are unforgiving, unjust and uncaring, we cannot claim to be on the Vine of Christ’s love. And if that’s the case we are in desperate need of the gentle hand of the Vinedresser, who only wants to see us bring forth the yield he knows we are capable of achieving.
Rev Billy Graham once said, “Going to Church no more makes you a Christian than living in a garage makes you a car.” That’s the point of Vine & Branch Sunday. God will not judge us by what we say or the public face of goodness we can turn on. We will be judged by the our acts of love in and through our kindness and compassion.
This metaphor also reminds us that we’re connected to each other. There are moments in our life of faith when we hear or see other Christians saying or doing things we cannot countenance. We can try and disown them by retreating into our denomination, but we are all connected in Christ’s vineyard. We need the courage to tell them the truth as we see it, and charitably point out the problems we have with what they think is right. And we need the humility to listen when they challenge us.
It’s even harder when the diseased part of the vine is in our own Catholic section of Vineyard. Our first instinct can be to loop off the branch, just to get rid of it. But as any Vinedresser knows this is the last resort. Whether we find it easy or not, Christ calls us to limited surgical interventions over amputations every time. This is tough love. Even though there are people within our community who have committed terrible crimes and betrayed our trust, the Gospel calls us to hold onto to them until it’s clear that no matter what intervention we make, they are dying on Christ’s vine already. And even then, we hope and pray that our action towards them might see a new growth within them which could be the beginning of a possible grafting back onto us in the future.
In the face of the world’s “shape up or ship out” principle, Vine and Branch Sunday challenges us to hang in with there with each other, in season and out of season, because as the old folk hymn sings, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”