My dad calls 1997 the year of the toe jam vintage. That’s because my older brother and I, just 7 and 5 years old at the time, got to stomp the grapes of my dad’s home made wine and crush them between our toes. I’m not sure I have any pictures from that day, but it stands out in my memory as a moment of gleeful childhood ecstasy, a rare moment of being able to help my parents, while also dancing in the juicy muck, and getting my brother and myself extremely messy.
Mind you, my dad did make us wash our feet beforehand. And we actually only crushed a small portion of the many grapes we processed that day; the majority went into the grape press like most other grapes being crushed for wine. But my dad never ceased to joke with us and every one of our guests he shared the wine with in the years that followed, saying that he could just barely make out the scent of toe jam in the wine’s bouquet.
Wine grapes are a curious crop. Growing up in the wine country of California, I know that the location of the vine, where it stands on the hillside, or what direction the incline faces all play important roles in the developing flavor of the grape. There are many factors outside of a grape vine’s control once it is planted, and there is only so much a vinedresser can do to encourage and coax a particular vine into growing more bountifully once it is already planted in a particular location. But one of the main tactics in the vinedresser’s tool belt that they can employ to improve their crop is pruning.
Now, in reading today’s Gospel in commemoration of Martin Luther, one could easily fall into thinking that the “pruning” and “casting into the fire” that’s being referred to here is about tossing heretics and apostates into the flames of hell. No matter which side of the Catholic-Protestant debate you may lean towards, the pairing of this Gospel reading with this saint’s commemoration can make for heightened emotions and tense bible studies!
So, if you’re like me, reading this lectionary might make you think that the meaning of God-as-pruner-in-chief is akin to God-as-punisher-in-chief. Or perhaps the language of Jesus-as-True Vine makes you think this must mean the same thing as Jesus-as-only-vine. But both God as punisher and Jesus as the only truth are ideas that I find equally problematic in our 21st century, pluralistic world.
As much as it may seem to the contrary, this pruning isn’t about meting out some sort of divine punishment. As any good gardener knows, pruning is not a form of punishment for the plants in your garden; it’s a process by which the gardener helps the plants to grow and flourish. For plants like grapes that have lived under human cultivation for thousands of years, they need the helping hand of a gardener to be allowed to reach their full potential.
Similarly, if we think about Jesus as the True Vine of the particular grape plant we Christians are all metaphysically or metaphorically a part of, then calling Jesus the True Vine doesn’t mean that there’s no other source of truth out there; in fact, the very idea of Jesus as the True Vine and of us as branches coming off of him implies the existence of a whole vineyard of other grapes out there. Calling Jesus the True Vine, therefore, is not about negating the existence of other grape vines, but rather insisting that, whatever you do end up pruning off, you better make sure you don’t cut away the True Vine, or the whole plant is going to die. Pruning branches helps, but pruning the True Vine kills the whole grape vine.
If you are like me and have from time to time absorbed ideas about God as being some distant, removed Being who exists only to pull strings or mete out punishment, the idea of God as a vinedresser who intimately cares for the health and well-being of Her grape vines is a challenging pill to swallow. But Jesus’ teaching is clear; God walks among her vineyard, checking on each vine and tending to its health; helping it to grow beautifully and bountifully. She not only spends long hours, working for the growth and health of all Her vines, but rejoices in the harvest, maybe even getting Her feet a little mucky, with a few grapes stuck between Her toes.
Peter Levenstrong is Associate Rector at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Having grown up non-religious, he enjoys bringing “a fresh pair of eyes” to explore the Christian tradition, and is particularly interested in the intersection of faith and justice. You can find more of his sermons at https://peterlevenstrong.wordpress.com/