Cutting Off the Fruitless Branch: Part 1
Take Away & Cut Off
There's a passage in the Bible that has long left me feeling unsettled. Well, there's a lot of those actually, but today I want to just talk about one of them.
It shows up in John 15. The NIV translates it like this:
1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 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.
The part that's never sat well with me is verse 2, "he cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit." If God, in this metaphor, functions as the gardener, the vinedresser, the one tending to the vine to ensure maximum harvest, then according to Jesus when branches are not bearing fruit God cuts them off. Other translations read "takes them away."
The ones bearing fruit? Oh, they get pruned so that "they will be even more fruitful."
The Rich Get Richer
This should sound familiar to us in many ways. Watching the disparity in America perpetually increase, for instance, between the rich and the poor, reinforces the frustrating reality that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. That is simply the world we live in. Right now, the top 1% richest people in America own 40% of the wealth.
Whereas the poor just keep falling more and more behind. And, as Richard Wilkinson so eloquently shows, the worse thing for societies is when the economic inequality expands.
To say that again, but slightly differently, the absolute best way to ensure that a society is more unhealthy, overweight, and has increased mental health issues... the best way to ensure that crime rates and violence are going up... the best way to decrease education scores... the best way to destroy trust in society and minimize happiness... is to have economic inequality.
When the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, society all across the board gets worse.
For some, that's just part of the "Good News" of the Gospel, isn't it?
Work hard, get a good education, keep working hard, get promoted, make more money, buy bigger stuff, watch your portfolio grow, and smile because you just got blessed by the Lord.
Under this line of thinking the ones that are growing fruit (i.e., the successful ones) are getting some Divine Assistance so that they can bear even more fruit. Which tells me that those with socioeconomic privilege, those who are benefiting materially from the world we live in, probably don't take much issue with these first two verses in John 15.
In other words, if you've had a modicum of success in life, then these verses likely don't cause you cognitive dissonance. They appear to resonate with your life experiences.
You're not pulling your weight? Not producing? Not working hard? Well, it makes sense then that you get cut off. Taken away. Removed. Laziness doesn't get rewarded!
But, start working hard, and pulling your weight? Start bearing fruit? Bravo! The system (leveraged by God, of course) will reward you!
Not to be a downer, but I get the sense that anytime we find the values of American Western Capitalism showing up in passages where Jesus is describing the Kingdom of God, there's a pretty decent chance we are misunderstanding Jesus.
To say that differently, the values of the Kingdom are diametrically opposed to the values of Empire.
So if we read something like John 15 and feel an affirmation of the ways of Empire, then we likely are not reading it properly.
If the "Good News" is just another way to say "American Dream," then we've gotten off track somewhere.
In tomorrow's post I'll offer an alternative rendering of these two verses. One that I think does better justice to both the text itself and the values of the Kingdom.