Daily Reflection
May 16th, 2001
John O'Keefe
Theology Department
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Acts 15:1-6
Psalms 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5
John 15:1-8

The pruning of vines and other such agricultural images make frequent appearances in the New Testament.  This is hardly surprising, given the complexion of Jewish society at the time of Jesus.  In the Gospel today we find such an image employed to illustrate the need for us to cleave to the Lord Christ if we are to bear fruit.  Apart from him “we can do nothing,” says the evangelist.  The Father prunes where needed and cuts away the dead wood.  Already this is a powerful message to us about the need for prayer and for the cultivation of habits of life that help us conform more perfectly to God’s will.

Today, however, something else has struck me.  I am a trained historical theologian with a strong interest in the relationship between Jews and Christians in the early centuries.  That relationship is complex and easily misunderstood.  For example, according to the Church’s tradition of interpretation, one could, reading Acts in the light of John, conclude (as many have done throughout Christian history) that the Jews are the fruitless branches that have been cut off from the “true vine.”  Such a reading could follow, given a particular, and wrong, understanding of the evolution of Christianity and Judaism in the early Church.

This passage from Acts, and others like it, points to a struggle we no longer remember between practitioners of the same religion about how to live that religion properly in a new context.  The question was “how do we be Jewish without a temple or a nation?”  It now appears quite certain that the two most successful answers to that question have been mediated through history as Christianity and modern Rabbinic Judaism.  Although the reading from Acts refers to gentile converts, there were probably not many of these, at least in the beginning.  The real fight was about the meaning of the law and the place of the Gentiles within God’s plan.  It was not a fight between “Christians” and “Jews” understood in the modern sense as two separate and distinct religions.  Both of these religions as they now exist are the descendents of an ancient tradition, and, as such, we might say that they are both part of the healthy vine that has survived God’s pruning.  It is, therefore, completely inappropriate to read the confluence of these two texts in an anti-Jewish way.

What then are we to make of this confluence?  Perhaps, if we would be faithful to the spirit of the first followers of Jesus, we might begin by asking ourselves, “are we open to what God is actually doing, even if it seems new and surprising and even if it shakes up our vision of how we think things ought to be?”  Are the struggles within our own Christian household in any way analogous to the struggles our forbearers faced within the household of ancient Judaism?  Am I like the converted Pharisees mentioned in Acts?  (Remember these Pharisees were followers of Jesus.)  However we answer these questions, one thing is certain, the solution for us—if indeed we are to remain part of the healthy vine—is “to give thanks to the name of the Lord” and to remember that “apart from [him we] can do nothing.”


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