In our Protestant religious culture, it’s fascinating to me that such strong emphases are placed on the literal interpretation of the Bible. Why? Jesus rarely spoke literally. He spoke in allegories, imagery, and parables. He painted word pictures. Instead of coming out and saying exactly what he meant, he often would tell a story and let people consider its deeper meaning. Indeed, these veiled messages of Jesus frequently frustrated his disciples. They wished that he would speak plainly and not be quite so opaque.
A prime example of this are the “I Am” statements of Jesus that I am preaching about during this season of Lent. For instance, in St. John 15:1-17, Jesus says, “I am the true vine.” Even the most ardent fundamentalist has to agree that when Jesus spoke these words he was speaking figuratively. Obviously, if we are to understand what Jesus was getting at here, we must look beyond the surface and do some exploring. We have to go beyond the actual words and discover Jesus’ multi-layered meaning.
When Jesus spoke about vineyards, the people of Judea knew what he was talking about. The wine industry in ancient Palestine had been carefully cultivated throughout the country for centuries. It was vital because it was a cash crop as opposed to grain, which was raised primarily for consumption.
must admit that while I do enjoy a robust glass of wine from time to time, I know very little about the particulars of the wine industry as it existed in biblical times. In preparation for this week’s sermon I have done some reading in this area and it was really quite fascinating. The vines are a very rugged crop in a way. In another sense, they impart a very delicate fruit and require kid-glove treatment. A young vine is not permitted to bear fruit for the first three years. It is therefore drastically pruned in December and January to preserve its energy. The particular branches that do not bear fruit are cut out to further conserve the energy of the plant. If this constant cutting back was not done, the result would be a crop that was not up to its full potential.
So when Jesus spoke about vineyards, certainly the people could identify with that metaphor in the same way a person in Idaho might know about potatoes or a person in Alabama might identify with cotton. It did not make any difference whether or not you were in that business. You had grown up around it enough that you were at least familiar with it.
But there is something else that the listeners in Jesus’ day would most certainly realize. A vineyard was the symbol of the nation of Israel. It was the symbol of their national identity in Judea. Over and over again in the Hebrew scriptures, Israel is depicted as the vine or the vineyard of God.
Josephus, the Roman historian in antiquity, actually informs us that over the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (at the time of Jesus) an exquisite, gold leaf grapevine was carved into the structure. It stood as a symbol of national and religious unity. Israel itself was, in the eyes of its people, the true vine, whose roots ran all the way back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!
But here is where it really gets interesting. Jesus takes this imagery one step farther. He likens himself to the vine, while the fruit bearing branches are the disciples. God is depicted as the one who cultivates the vineyard. What can we make of this analogy in terms of our daily life? What does it mean to be part of God’s vineyard? It is in answering these questions that we find the meaning for us today.
Join me this coming Sunday as I continue my Lenten sermon series “The Great I Am.” I look forward to seeing you soon!
P.S. I’m utterly amazed that it’s March 13. In just 10 days, about 100 Asbury church members will be joining Tami and me on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. For those of you who aren’t able to join us on this trip, I’ve asked our Communications Coordinator Amy Gonzalez to accompany us and document every step of the way—in photos. She will be taking over my blog and you can expect regular posts all throughout our 10-day journey so you can feel like you’re part of it. Pastors Kelsey and Robert will be filling in in my absence; I thank them in advance and thank you for supporting them with your presence on Sunday morning.