1Compassion and interconnection

In the fourth Gospel Jesus often speaks in theological terms of interconnection. In John 15 he speaks of it as “witness of the Spirit.” He explains it with the simile of the vine and the branches.[1] Jesus is the true vine. The Father is the vine grower (v. 1) who removes the branches that do not bear fruit, and prunes (literally “cleanses,” kathairei) the branches that bear fruit. The verb “ to clean” also appears in the fourth Gospel during the washing of the feet (John 13:10), when Jesus says to his disciples: “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for their feet, but is entirely clean (katharos). And you are clean, though not all of you.” Since he knew who was to betray him, he said “not all of you are clean.”[2]

The pruning of the branch that bears fruit so that it will bear more fruit (v. 2) is an example and an explanation of the baptismal meaning of the washing of the feet, according to the explanation that Jesus gives to Peter in John 13:8: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” The Father, who is the vine grower, “cleans” the disciples of Jesus by means of his passion, unites them to his passion and death, so that by the gift of his life and the Holy Spirit they may be united to him and to his resurrection.[3] The disciples, cleansed by the word that Jesus announced, have access to a salvific dialogue, participate in the communion of Jesus with the love of the Father, and are invited to abide in him. Otherwise they are like a branch detached from the vine, which serves no purpose.

Jesus then repeats the meaning of the simile of the vine and the branches and adds the fate of those who do not remain “connected” to him: it is to be “thrown away like a branch that withers;[4] such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”[5] Whoever does not abide in Jesus is “driven out”[6] and withers like the branches that are not united to the vine. The mention of fire in this simile refers to the judgment that, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus carries out with his passion. The meaning of the simile is as follows: just as the branch that bears fruit is connected to the vine, so connection to the life of Jesus and to the fullness of communion with the love of the Father produces, encourages and promotes life. Every production of life – and every “cleaning” – according to the logic of the simile of the vine and the branches, involves a connection to the life of Jesus.

Jesus therefore invites the disciples to abide in him, “and” (in the Greek text the conjunction is an epexegetical kai: “that is”) to let his words dwell in them, to obtain whatever they ask. The Father is glorified – that is, he is united to the disciples, as he is to Jesus – in the fact that they bear much fruit and, therefore, are his disciples. But for this it is necessary to “abide in the love” that Jesus has shown to His own, which is an imitation of the (mutual) love of the Father. To abide in love in order to bear fruit means to observe Jesus’ commandments, which are the fulfillment of promises and the fullness of joy; it means to participate in the life of Jesus, to continue to love, even in difficulties and adversities and where communion is lacking. It means to participate in the life of Jesus, to be in communion with him. It means to bring love and communion – also through dialogue – where they are lacking. This is the “glorification” of Jesus.

The condition for the implementation of this dynamic of connection, which includes the observance of Jesus’ commandments, that is, the commandment of love,[7] is listening to and welcoming the word of Jesus,[8] which involves dialogue and a relationship with him and includes welcoming the enemy. Jesus kept the commandments of the Father (including love of the enemy),[9] and abides in his love,[10] in a very special and unique relationship of mutual love that the Gospel of John calls “glorification.”

The ‘witness of the Spirit’

After declaring that the model of mutual love is his love, and that “no one has a greater love than this: to give one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus adds: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”[11] In Hebrew, friendship and friend are expressed by (chvr) a verb that means “to bind.” Jesus bound his friends to himself by giving his life, to make them share in his communion of love with the Father. The commandment of which Jesus speaks, to “abide” in love with a bond similar to that which exists between the vine and the branches, is therefore “mutual” love, explained by the “gift” of life for friends.[12]

This commandment was presented by Jesus in the context of foot washing as “new.” It is “mutual” because it is connected and expresses a connection with Jesus’ communion of love with the Father.[13] With mutual love we first of all welcome the word of Jesus and the gift of his life, which is communion with the love of the Father. Then one faces the hatred of the world,[14] witnessing a love that is a free and unlimited gift of self.

More than a totality or a set of people, the “world” reflects a mentality that opposes the revelation of Jesus.[15] Hatred – which is the opposite of love and communion – is an expression of a “worldly” mentality, opposed to the revelation of Jesus. After explaining that the cause of the world’s hatred (for disciples) is hatred for Jesus – for Jesus’ choice and his “mutual” love (vv. 18-24) – the quotation from Ps 35:19 and Ps 69:5 further explains the disciple’s participation in the Master’s life. hatred for Jesus is the reason for the world’s hatred of the disciple.[16]

In this context is announced the coming and witness of the Spirit of truth,[17] who is the Spirit of love.[18] Promised by the word of God and identified with Jesus – who for the Gospel of John is the word of God and the Truth – the Spirit of truth realizes the bond and union of which Jesus speaks through the simile of the vine and the branches.[19] It is the fulfillment of the promise of a dialogue, a new covenant[20] and a new commandment that consists in this “bond” with the fullness of love, which is the life of communion of Jesus with the Father. The “witness of the Spirit” realizes the “bond” with the life of Jesus, his communion with the love of the Father, and expresses this bond in a context of trial.[21] 

The vine, the shoots and groans of creation

The simile of the vine and the branches in John 15:1-11 may refer to the words of institution of the Last Supper in the Synoptic traditions.[22] In the Synoptic Gospels, during the Last Supper Jesus in fact mentions the wine (fruit of the vine) in relation to the salvific meaning of his passion, which fulfills the word of God and the promises of the new covenant. Roger Le Déaut suggested that the chalice of the Last Supper, like that of his agony and that which the disciples need to drink to sit at the right and left of Jesus in the kingdom of God,[23] has the meaning that the Targum Neophyti attributes to this term in Deut 32:1 (and the Testament of Abraham 16), namely, death: “I do not testify against them [the children of God] before men who die and taste the chalice of death […]. But I testify against them before heaven and before earth, who do not die in (this) world and do not taste the chalice of death, but whose end is to be destroyed for the world to come.” For the Targumim (the Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible), the chalice in the Bible contains a reference to passion and death. When Jesus invites the disciples to communicate in the chalice of the new covenant in his blood,[24] he invites them to participate in his passion. The new covenant in the blood of Jesus (Luke 22:20; cf. Jer 31:31-34) is realized by his passion and communion at his redeeming death, according to the double meaning of the word diath?k?: covenant and testament that presupposes death.[25]

This aspect of trial and passion, contained in the meaning of the chalice (and in the messianic symbolism of grapes and wine),[26] is taken up by Jesus in the simile of the vine and the branches. The Father, who is the vine grower, removes from the vine the branches that do not bear fruit, and those that bear fruit he “cleanses” so that they bear more fruit.[27] Thus the fourth Gospel explains the words of institution in reference to the meaning of the Last Supper in the Synoptic traditions as a gift of Jesus’ life, and as communion with the gift of his life, with participation in his passion and referring to the baptismal meaning of the terms with which in John 13 Jesus had spoken of the disciple’s union with the life of the Master and the new commandment.

As with Johannine theology, for Saint Paul baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit involve an aspect of “interconnection.” In Rom 8 the Holy Spirit brings about holiness and sanctification (understood as interconnection), as participation in Jesus’ inheritance, in his suffering and glorification.[28] The sanctification of the children of God through the Holy Spirit involves participation in the sufferings and glorification of Jesus, and also concerns creation, which has been subjected to the fall  through human sin and shares in their redemption and sanctification.

The sufferings of the present moment, which are not comparable to the future glory that will be revealed,[29] are expressed by “groans” – like a birth – of creation (which awaits the revelation of God’s children) and by the groans of the Spirit in believers. The groans of the Spirit in creation (v. 22) and in believers (v. 23) are the demonstration of the work of sanctification, that is, the communication of divine life, the coming of the Kingdom and the presence of the Father. With the gift of the Holy Spirit – which is the gift of the life of Jesus and the love of the Father (cf. John 1:18; 1 John 4) – the sanctification of creation is accomplished as a conformation to the glorification of the Son. The same Spirit who “groans” in creation “groans” in believers, revealing God’s fatherhood in the lives of his children as a conformation to the image of the Son.

Connection and service

The parable of the vine and branches presents Jesus’ Easter as a gift of his life, as a participation in his life and communion with the Father’s love, and in this way as the fulfillment of God’s word and the promise of the new covenant. The simile of the vine and the branches thus recalls a meaning – the sacramental meaning – of the washing of the feet, and it is a way in which the fourth Gospel explains the (baptismal) meaning of Jesus’ words over the chalice during the Last Supper of the Synoptics, by communion with his life through union with his passion and death. The new covenant is this participation in the “chalice” of Jesus,[30] in his passion and the gift of his life, which is the Spirit and the “witness of the Spirit.”[31]

Compassion, which is an expression of the commandment of mutual love and of the witness of the Spirit, is understood by the theology (practice) of welcoming, starting from the “connection” of which the simile of the vine and the branches in John 15 speaks: it is participation in the communion of Jesus with the love of the Father, source of life (for all). The “connection” which is proper to every commandment is, in John 15, the novelty of compassion made possible by Jesus’ friendship for all and forever, through the gift of his Spirit (of peace and love, “at work in creation and in the hearts of men and women of good will of every race, culture and religion,”)[32] which is his life and participation in the communion of love with the Father, and the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies and Scriptures.[33] Every form and practice of this commandment, every expression of compassion and dialogue, is a “witness of the Spirit,” prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures, at work ordinarily in the “middle class of holiness,”[34] and universally in the bonds with creation and in “service” to creatures.[35]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 08 art. 11, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0820.11

[1].    Cf. John 6; 10; 17; etc. For M.J. Lagrange, Évangile selon Saint Jean, Paris, J. Gabalda, 1948, 401, John 15 is a parable transformed into allegory. Unlike John 10, in John 15 Jesus explains the role of the Father, presented as a vine grower (v. 1; cf. Mark 12:1-12; 1 Cor 3:6-9). Pope Francis often mentions this interconnection. He talked about it, for example, in his speech at Posillipo, at the Conference on “Theology after ‘Veritatis Gaudium’ in the context of the Mediterranean” and in the speech last February to the bishops gathered for the meeting in Bari, “Mediterranean Frontier of Peace.” Cf. S. Bongiovanni – S. Tanzarella (eds.), Con tutti i naufraghi della storia. La teologia dopo Veritatis gaudium nel contesto del Mediterraneo, Trapani, Il Pozzo di Giacobbe, 2019, 221-232.

[2].    John 13:10-11.

[3].    Cf. John 19:30; 20:21-23; Rom 6.

[4].    For R. Schnackenburg, Il vangelo di Giovanni, vol. 3, Brescia, Paideia, 1981, “the cutting of the dried branches is then developed as a reason for alarm (v. 6): it is not so much an allusion to the traitor Judas, but rather to members of the community who have failed to proof themselves or fallen into heresy, and their exclusion (cf. 1 John 2:19) is explained here as an action carried out by God.”

[5].    John 15:6; cf. Isa 40:7; Matt 13:24-30.36-43.

[6].    Cf. John 12:31.

[7] .   Cf. John 13:35; 1 John 2:4.

[8] .   “The connection between the ‘observance of the commandments’ and ‘love’ comes from the language of Deuteronomy, as shown especially in chapters 6-11 of that book, where the theology of the covenant between God and his people is expressed (cf. Deut 7:9.12)” (J. Beutler, Il Vangelo di Giovanni, Rome, Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2016, 468).

[9] .   Cf. Lev 19:1-2; Matt 5:43-48.

[10].   Cf. John 15:10; 14:15.21.23.

[11].   John 15:12-14.

[12].   Cf. John 15:12-13; 1 John 2:9-11; 3:11-18.23; 4:7.11-12.20-21; 5:1-2.

[13].   Cf. John 13:34. In John 15:12-13 the command of mutual love (and giving one’s life for friends, v. 13) refers to the meaning of the washing of the feet, that is, the gift of Jesus’ life (cf. 1 John 3:16). The verb “to give (life for friends) (tithemi)” in John 15:13 also occurs in fact in John 13:4 (and John 10:11), when Jesus takes off (literally: “gives away”) his clothes before washing the disciples’ feet, thus prophesying the gift of his life.

[14].   Cf. John 15:18.

[15].   Cf. John 8:23; 17:9.

[16].   See Mark 13:9-13.

[17].   Cf. John 15:26; cf. John 14:16-17.25-26; 16:7; 1 John 5:6-7.

[18].   Cf. John 1:17-18; cf. Gal 3:5.

[19].   Cf. John 14:6.16.

[20].   See Jer 31:31-32; Ezek 36:24-25.

[21].   Cf. Matt 10:19-20; Mark 13:9.11; Luke 2:11-12; 21:13.

[22].   See P. Di Luccio, “Tradizioni dell’Ultima Cena”, in Rassegna di Teologia 54 (2013/3) 391-416.

[23].   Cf. Luke 22:20; John 18:11; Matt 20:22-23.

[24].   Cf. Luke 22:20.

[25].   Cfr R. L. Déaut, “Goûter le calice de la mort”, in Biblica 43 (1962) 82-86.

[26].   Cf. Gen 49:11-12.

[27].   Cf. John 15:2; Matt 15:13; 21:41; Luke 13:6-9; Rom 11:17.

[28].   Cf. Rom 8:16-17; cf. Rom 5:1-5; Gal 3:29-4:7; 1 Pet 4:13; 5:1.

[29].   Cf. Rom 8:18; Dan 7:21-22.25-27; 12:1-3; Book of Jubilees 23:22-31; 1QH 3:28-36.

[30].   See Matt 20:20-23; Mark 10:35-40.

[31].   Cf. John 19:30; 20:21-23.

[32].   Francis, Speech at the Conference “Theology after ‘Veritatis Gaudium’ in the context of the Mediterranean”, Naples, June 21, 2019.

[33].   Cf. John 1:17-18.

[34].   Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, No. 7.

[35].   Cf. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, N. 23.