The Gospel reading today is one of Jesus’ famous “I AM” parables, and it’s always been one of my favorites: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” It’s a beautiful image of what it means to be united with God and of God’s sustaining energies that flow through us. But, as I was reminded this morning, this is actually the second half of the metaphor. It starts with: “I am the true vine, 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.” It’s the same image, but looked at from a slightly different — and less comfortable — perspective.
As much as I love the image of growth as a metaphor for the spiritual life, growth isn’t always a good thing. In our bodies, we call unrelenting cell growth ‘cancer’. Economically, the West’s singular focus on growth has led to our current crises of environmental degradation, impending ecological collapse, and economic inequality — whether viewed in terms of the hollowing out of our rural communities or the affordability crisis in our cities. And, returning to the metaphor in today’s Gospel, a plant that is allowed to grow unchecked won’t flower or produce fruit in the same abundance as a plant that is pruned back. And the same is true of our hearts and minds and souls.
As much as we may want an easy life that allows us just to grow without attention or effort, such a life doesn’t bear much fruit. Imagine a coddled child who never learns the importance of hard work, resilience, that a skinned knee isn’t a big deal, or that conflicts can be resolved. It would be an easy life in some ways, but such a child would be totally unprepared for adult life. We need a bit of stress in order to thrive. We need a bit of adversity in order to blossom and become fruitful. (Of course too much adversity is destructive, just as an inexpert hand can kill a vine by pruning back too much!)
This pruning image brings to mind the Jewish mystical concept of Gevurah, which is understood to be the fifth of the ten attributes of divine revelation and creation. Like the pruning metaphor, this energy of Gevurah is a kind of refiner’s fire that demands of us to question ourselves, to discern what’s truly important and what we must let go in order to reach our full potential. It’s a creative energy, but one that feels like destruction because it means we have to let go of things that aren’t essential. Gevurah is the attribute that balances out Hesed, blessing or abundance: it’s the energy that asks us both to rid ourselves of excess baggage in terms of the abundance we have been given and to cut back on what we’re giving of ourselves so we don’t overextend ourselves. While not fun, it’s a critically important part of any endeavour.
The creative tension between giving and holding back, and between receiving and cutting back represented by the concept of Gevurah has been helpful to me in thinking through the season of life I’ve been in over the past few years. It’s been a hard season of wrestling with vocation, identity, and mission. While the lessons learned have been hard and I’ve had a bit of egg on my face, it has certainly been a valuable time, and even as I feel very ready to move on to the next season of my life, I know I will emerge from this one with greater focus, resilience, and a stronger sense of who I am and what I am called to do in life.
And so the image of God lovingly pruning back the branches so that we may bear more fruit feels very alive to me today, and I’m grateful for this parental care that doesn’t just leave us to our own devices and whims, but directs us back to where we can truly thrive.