When referring to Jesus’ parable of the Good Shepherd last Sunday, I admitted that my knowledge of farming and agriculture is rather limited. That limitation extends to vine-dressing – with reference to the image as presented in today’s gospel. However, my limited knowledge doesn’t mean that I’m absolutely ignorant of the matter. Thanks to my formal education plus my deep-rooted curiosity and experience of real life, I do know a couple of things about horticulture. It’s enough to make me feel deeply moved by the image painted by Jesus in today’s gospel.
Let’s start with a simple reminder of what we learnt way back in primary school. Generally, plants get water and nutrients from the soil, and transport them through their roots, trunks, branches and twigs all the way through to the leaves. They use these ingredients alongside the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to produce sugars in a process powered by sunlight and therefore called ‘photosynthesis’. Each of these elements – water, nutrients, carbon dioxide and sunlight – is indispensable and is provided in the right quantities; absence of any one ingredient can be as deadly as an excess of it. Now, let’s apply that simile to our own lives. They are comprised of many tiny elements; each one of them might seem unimportant in its own right, but it’s nevertheless vital to a happy life. Family and friends, lovely food and drink, charitable interactions, good books or films, holidays, a decent salary – the list is endless. God is the sunlight that can transform all those elements of life into something much greater than the simple sum of them – provided that we let Him do so.
As I mentioned earlier, the process of photosynthesis in plants essentially produces sugars. That sounds so good to our Scottish sweet tooth! Those simple compounds are used to keep the plant alive and to go on to produce genetic material in the form of seeds. Quite often those are wrapped up in the fleshy casing we call fruit. Interestingly enough, the seed inside the fruit doesn’t actually need that fleshy and tasty wrapping. So, why do so many plants invest so much effort in producing such an extravagant surplus? The answer is simple: it’s the plants’ strategy to spread their genetic material as far away as possible by attracting various animals and their bowels necessary to sprout the seeds. It fits in well with today’s gospel, where Jesus tells us to bear fruit and to do it in plenty. The fruit of our Christian life isn’t for our own personal ‘consumption’, like self-satisfaction, boastfulness, pride or superiority. The Christian life we live is to call attention to Jesus, to attract those who haven’t met him yet and to draw them towards Him. To us, such a way of spreading the gospel might seem ineffective in the short term. But in the long term it’s a compelling strategy, as it respects people’s freedom of choice.
There’s one unsettling aspect to the parable of the vine-dresser. Jesus talks about pruning or cutting off bits of the vine purposely. Virtually nobody likes suffering, losing, failing and so on. Virtually everybody tries to avoid any unpleasantness and to seek pleasantness in many shapes and forms. However, real-life experience clearly indicates that permanent, unchallenged and uninterrupted prosperity leads to all sorts of socially undesirable attitudes and behaviours. We are challenged, tested, unsettled and confronted by unpleasant happenings, big and small. In this way we are pruned of complacency, boastfulness, feelings of entitlement and all other undesirable traits. This kind of pruning happens through regular and incidental interaction with others. So, with possibly a very few exceptions, see those around you as God’s tools for making you a better person. Be grateful for those who are brave enough to be honest with you.