Effective pruning means a thorough removal of branches that once bore fruit
Every year we hear the same readings, the same parables, the same analogies: sheep & shepherds; seeds & sowers; vines, branches, weeds & farmers; coins, talents & those who don’t know what to do with them. As we slowly progress through life each parable takes on new meaning as we identify more or less with different individuals in this same cast of characters. Then, one Sunday when we’re paying particularly close attention, we realize that our perspective has changed, and through the same parable Jesus is telling us something completely new. With wide-open eyes, observing from another vantage, we can learn more, understand better, and grow in our faith.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (Jn. 15: 1-2).
I studied agriculture in college — almost 15 years ago — and recently spent a couple weekends tending to my mother’s backyard fruit trees. There is this lemon tree that produces the ugliest, oddest shaped, thickest skinned, yet juiciest lemons I’ve ever had. The tree has thorns throughout and grows straight up, ever threatening to tangle with the overhead power lines. The tree needed taming, and I was the one to do it. And so I did. I emerged scratched and dirty with debris in my hair and eyes, but triumphant. The tree was manicured to the liking of my un-exercised eye: twisted branches and dead fruit were gone, foliage and green branches were thinned, and the sun could finally infiltrate the interior of the tree.
The next week I went to check on the tree and noticed that the lower bark was starting to crack and peel. The supporting branches were in distress – what had I done? Quickly I realized that I had pruned too much, too late in the season, and the sun had suddenly reached low branches that never saw full sun. As a result, the bark was dry, cracked, and peeling: sunburn! My mother thought it terribly funny and rather cute that the tree had a sunburn, but I felt differently. I felt bad. I should have known better than to prune so late in the season. And I should have left some protection for the tree so that it wouldn’t stress, but would flourish and continue to grow. After all, that is the point of pruning: to remove excess growth that is weighing the tree down, diverting resources, and to enable new, healthy growth.
What I did to my mother’s lemon tree is not what we can expect from God in the True Vine parable. Trees should be pruned after a spring and summer of foliage and fruit, once the trees lose their leaves and go dormant. God knows when to prune, how to prune, and why to prune. He would not subject us to pointless distress, but knowingly removes the surplus.
While Jesus says that fruitless branches will be removed, even the branches that do bear fruit are pruned. This may sound like a comfort; we hope that we are fruitful and won’t be subjected to removal but instead will simply be pruned back. How bad can that be? A gentle and helpful process, a snip here, a snip there. But that is not necessarily so. My recent experience aside, effective pruning is still an intense exercise. With many stone fruit trees it is standard to remove 40-60% of the tree limbs during pruning. Seeing an orchard of dormant peach trees that have been pruned in winter is a dramatic vision. The trees look stark, barren, and all but dead. Little remains but the trunk and a few leader and scaffold branches.
For the first time I realized what pruning really means in the context of this parable: It means thorough, dramatic removal of branches that once bore fruit — not a gentle application of clippers. It is a saw and shears expertly wielded to remove the excess, allowing us to conserve and focus our resources. Once we wake, we are able to channel our energy into new growth, to bear more fruit, to flourish. We cannot rely on the fruits of seasons past, of the bounty we once yielded. We must pour our energy into fruitful pursuits. The only way we can do this is if we are pruned, cut far back to start practically anew.
But we are only the branches, Jesus is the vine. He sustains us. When God prunes, He draws the branches closer to the vine, with a matter of inches between them. How can we but focus on our reliance on the vine, who nourishes us and gives us life, allowing us to begin again.