Owning a vineyard is a labor intensive business. To grow grapes for making wine the owner of the vineyard must invest a great deal of time and money to cultivate vines in the right soil, in the right location, hoping for perfect weather and sunlight in order to bring in a good harvest with is fit for making wine. It takes years for a vineyard to produce sufficient fruit to make a good wine. Sometimes it takes as many as ten years before new vines are mature and ready for wine-making. During the process the vineyard owner must carefully prune his vines and care for the daily, inspecting for disease or pests. There is a joke among vineyard owners: how do you make a small fortune with a winery? Start with a large fortune and buy a winery.
Vineyards were lucrative in the ancient world, and wine-making was a well known art to most people in the ancient world. It is little wonder that the image of a vineyard was associated with God’s care for his people. Like a shepherd with his sheep, everyone knew the kind of work went into a well-maintained vineyard and the production of good wine.
In this series of parable-like sayings in John 15, Jesus describes God as the owner of a vineyard in which Jesus himself is the vine and his disciples are the branches. This is a vivid image for the relationship of Jesus and his disciples as well as the on-going relationship of Jesus to his disciples in all ages. We will see in these verses Jesus’ intimate relationship with his disciples will result in both friendship with Jesus, but also enmity with the world.
This is Jesus’ final “I am” statement in the Gospel of John. As with the others, Jesus is evoking a very clear metaphor from the Hebrew Bible and applying it to himself. In the Hebrew Bible, Israel is described as a vineyard planted by the Lord (Isa 5:1-7, Ps 80:8-16, Jer 2:21, Ezek 15, Hos 10:1). This metaphor is used in Second Temple Period literature as well (Sirach 24:17-27; 2 Bar. 39.7).
In each of these texts God is the one who planted the vineyard, then he entrusted that vineyard to his people Israel. There is an emphasis on the loving care with which God planting the vineyard, providing all that it needed to succeed But Israel did not fulfill their role as custodians of the vineyard. As a result it is destroyed. In Isaiah this is a prophecy of the coming destruction of Jerusalem, as is the worship reflection on Israel’s history in Psalm 80.
Jesus used the image of a vineyard in a parable during his teaching in the Temple just a few days prior to the last supper (Mark 12:1-12). In this parable he makes a similar point, that God is the one who established Israel as a vineyard and he is the owner of the vineyard. When the Messiah came to the people of God, he expected fruit but there was none. There are several parables which describe the eschatological judgment as a time of harvest, when the wheat will be collected and stored in the barn, but the weeds will be gathered and burned on a fire.
The metaphor is adapted here in John 15 and applied to the disciples as a New Israel. The owner if the vineyard is still God, but Jesus develops the idea of the vine in much more detail than the Hebrew Bible. The vines and branches have an intimate relationship – there is no life for the branch apart from the vine, it must remain in the vine in order to have life.
But the fate of the branch is also tied to the vine. Since Jesus will suffer, so too will his followers. Jesus knows that the sort of abuse he is about to endure will soon be transferred to his disciples. If they abide in him, then they will suffer just like he does.
Jesus has redefined the “vineyard” as himself and he will succeed in fulfilling the covenant as the true Israel. While Israel failed as the custodians of the vineyard, Jesus will succeed and his twelve disciples constitute a new Israel.