By Father Donald Dilger
First Reading: Acts 9:26-31; Response: Psalm 22:26-27, 28, 30, 31-32; Second Reading: 1 John 3:18-24; Gospel: John 15:1-8
In an excerpt from Acts of Apostles, our first reading begins, “When Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was now a Christian.” Saul is the future St. Paul. The Jerusalem Christians had not forgotten his role in the death of their first martyr Stephen the deacon. They also remembered his reign of terror during the persecution that broke out after Stephen’s martyrdom. See Acts 7:5; 8:3; 9:1-2. They did not trust his rumored conversion, which had since occurred. They suspected him of being an infiltrator, a spy with murderous intent. Saul needed inside help. The greatly respected Barnabas introduced Saul to the apostles. He described to them Saul’s dramatic conversion and his sudden flip-flop from persecutor to proclaimer of Jesus in the city of Damascus, Syria. He was not wanted in Damascus, either. He was forced to escape from the city by being lowered in a basket from a window in the city wall. But in Jerusalem, Barnabas vouched for him. This brought him the freedom to move about among the Christians.
Saul’s inclination to hyperactivity compelled him to go to work. “He spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord.” He engaged in debates with the Hellenists — Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem. They tried to kill him. The apostles quickly spirited him out of Jerusalem northward to Caesarea on the seacoast, and from there to his hometown Tarsus (today an area of southeast Turkey). One gets the impression that when Luke narrates this story, he makes a connection between Saul’s departure and the ensuing peace in Jerusalem. He writes, “The Church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace, built up, walking in awe of the Lord and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit.” Interesting that disagreement over Paul’s theology was one of the causes of the Protestant Revolution. It would take at least two decades for Saul to be St. Paul. Throughout the history of the Church, God often used turbulent characters to achieve his work. The hyperactivity of Paul’s personality enabled him to become the restless apostle to the Gentiles. Eventually, it would be Barnabas who would for the second time integrate Saul into the Christian community, though never again in Jerusalem, but far to the north in Antioch, Syria.
Psalm 22 may have been selected as a response to the story of Saul’s (Paul’s) difficulty to be integrated into the Christian community, “I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of the people.” Other verses can relate to Paul’s future work as apostle to the Gentiles. “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord. All families of the nations (Gentiles) shall bow down before him.” The third verse of the psalm can relate to a subject with which Paul had to deal at length — resurrection of the dead. “To him (God) alone shall bow down all who sleep in the earth. Before him shall bend all who go down into the dust.”
The second reading continues a series of selections from the 1st Letter of John. The author dwells upon his major theme — preaching to his divided community about mutual love. Apparently, there were some parishioners who loved their fellow Christians only “in word or speech.” He insists on loving each other “in deed and in truth.” This is similar to the Letter of James, which insists that faith without works is dead. James writes, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I from my works will show you my faith.” In John 15:12, Jesus summarizes all commandments into one, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Not just in words, but in deeds.
This Sunday’s gospel is the parable of the vine and its branches. It demonstrates knowledge of cultivating grapevines. Like the parable of the Good Shepherd in last Sunday’s gospel, this parable is also a development of an Old Testament parable, Isaiah 5:1-7, called the Song of the Vineyard. That parable sings of a friend who loved his vineyard. He planted it on a fertile hillside. He dug the soil, cleared out the stones, then planted fruitful vines. He constructed a watchtower to guard against two-legged and four-legged thieves. He readied a wine press. His vineyard failed, “Sour grapes is all that it gave.” Punishment: removal of a protective hedge. Now the vineyard could be grazed and trampled. Briars would take over. No rain will fall. The application of the parable: The Lord is the friend who had loved his vineyard. The vineyard, says Isaiah, is “the House of Israel and the men of Judah.” These were the traditional names of the northern and southern kingdoms. A further application of the parable is given. The Lord looked for justice and instead found bloodshed. He looked for goodness and found only a cry of distress. Such is the background of the gospel’s parable of the vine and the branches.
Like the parable of the Good Shepherd, this parable also begins with a comparison. “I am the true vine.” John is contrasting Jesus with what in his mind is a failed Israel. A kinder way to say this: John resorts to his practice of proclaiming Jesus the perfection of the old vine Israel, as he has demonstrated before that Jesus is God’s ultimate word and Word over the words of Moses. The Lord who loved his vineyard in Isaiah is the Father in our parable. “My Father is the vine grower.” He is also the pruner. He cuts out branches that do not bear fruit. He prunes branches bearing fruit so that they bear more fruit. Who are the branches? Disciples of Jesus, “You are the branches.” Those who remain united to him will bear much fruit, “because without me you can do nothing.” Useless branches will be removed from the vineyard and burned. The parable evolved from more positive imagery at its beginning into negative imagery of final judgment. John adds to the parable a promising outcome for the branches united to the true vine. “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask the Father whatever you wish and it will be granted.” Has this been our experience? If not, consult the Letter of James 1:5-7.