Jesus wanted to comfort His disciples about His coming Passion and the future troubles that would come. Jesus told them, “Let not your hearts be troubled” (Jn 14:27).
Now he wants to reassure them using the image of a vine: He Himself is the vine. Thomas notes that a vine may seem small compared to fruit trees but “it is the sweetest in its fruit.” In a similar way, Jesus was disregarded by the world because of His poverty. Thomas adds: “Christ is a vine producing a wine which interiorly intoxicates us.” This is “a wine of sorrow for sin… a wine which strengthens us, that is, which restores us: ‘My blood is drink indeed’ (Jn 6:55) (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John. 1979).
Jesus asserts that He is the “true vine.” It is not a picture of a vine, nor “deformed or spoiled vine, just as true wine is distinguished from vinegar, which is spoiled wine” (Commentary on John. 1980).
Jesus is the true vine, in His humanity, “as He is the head of the Church, the man Christ Jesus” (Commentary on John. 1981).
His Father is the vinedresser who cultivates the vine. To cultivate means to “devote one’s interest to it.” We cultivate plants but there is also a sense that people are “cultivated” as friends.
Thomas affirms: “God cultivates us to make us better by His work, since He roots out the evil seeds in our hearts. Augustine says, He opens our hearts with the plow of His words, plants the seeds of the commandments, and harvests the fruit of devotion” (Commentary on John. 1982).
There is also a sense in which, “But we cultivate God, not by plowing but by adoring, in order that we may be made better by Him.” God declares through Jeremiah, “I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed” (Jer 2:21). God makes things “grow from within and produce fruit, no matter how much others cooperate on the exterior” (Commentary on John. 1980).
All the branches of the vine share the nature of the vine. The vinedresser cuts off every branch that does not bear fruit. Thomas reflects: “It is clear from this that not only are some cut off from Christ for doing evil, but also because they neglect to do good” St. Paul said: “We entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor 6:1) (Commentary on John. 1982).
Paul declared: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Cor 15:10). Thomas recalls that money was taken away from the servant who did not invest it (Mt 25:28) and the unfruitful tree was cut down (Lk 13:7) (Commentary on John. 1984).
The vinedresser’s concern about the good branches is that they may bear more fruit. Thomas explains that a vine with many branches bears less fruit because the sap is spread out. So the vinedresser prunes away the extra shoots so the vine can bear more fruit. Thomas observes It is the same with us. For if we are well disposed and united to God, yet scatter our love over many things, our virtue becomes weak and we become less able to do good. This is why God, in order that we may bear fruit, will frequently remove such obstacles and prune us by sending troubles and temptations, which make us stronger (Commentary on John. 1985).
Thomas comments that the vinedresser prunes to make clean because no one is so clean that “he does not need to be cleansed more and more.” The First Letter of John states: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8) (Commentary on John. 1985).
Thomas explains: “He does this so that it may bear more fruit, that is, grow in virtue, so that the more pruned or cleansed the more fruitful one is” Thomas recalls the words of the Book of Revelation: “Let the just still be justified, and the holy still be sanctified” (Rev 22:11) as well as the Letter to the Colossians: “The Gospel is bearing fruit and growing” (Col 1:6) (Commentary on John. 1985).
Jesus speaks of the union of the vine and the branches and also of their pruning. Thomas affirms: “He advises the disciples to cling to the vine.” Jesus’ words have already made them clean. Thomas remarks: “The word of Christ cleanses us from error by teaching us” (Commentary on John. 1986).
In an additional way, Thomas adds, “The word of Christ cleanses our hearts from earthly affections by inflaming them toward heavenly things. For the word of God by its power moves our hearts, weighed down by earthly things, and sets them on fire.” God asked Jeremiah, “Is not my word fire?” (Jer 23:29) (Commentary on John. 1987).
Thomas points out that the invocation of God at Baptism cleanses us from sin. As Augustine says: “Take away the word and what is the water but only water? The word accompanies the element and a sacrament is formed.” Thomas reflects: “Thus it is the word which makes the water touch the body and wash the heart” (Commentary on John. 1987).
Thomas explains that it is not the speaking of the word alone “but because it is believed. For this word of faith is so strong in the Church that it even cleanses infants, although they themselves cannot believe, when it is proclaimed from the faith of those who believe, offer, bless and touch the infants, ‘baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’” (Mt 28:19) (Commentary on John. 1987).
The word of Christ also cleanses by the power of faith: God “cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9) (Commentary on John. 1987). Christ, as divine makes them clean. Thomas comments that Jesus urges the disciples to persevere in union with Him: “Abide in me, by charity: ‘He who abides in love abides in God’ (1 Jn 4:16); and by means of the sacraments: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me’ (Jn 6:56). He says, Abide in me, by receiving grace, and I in you, by helping you” (Commentary on John. 1988).
Why should we abide in Christ Thomas answers that Christ “sanctifies those who are united to him… those who are united to him have their desires satisfied and glorify God.” By being united with Christ, they bear fruit because the union is efficacious. The branch cannot bear fruit on its own: “In the vine, from whose roots sap ascends to give life to the branches, so neither can you bear fruit unless you abide in me. Thus, being united to Christ is the reason why someone bears fruit” (Commentary on John. 1990).
Being united with Christ is efficacious. In other words, Jesus is saying “I say that it is not only necessary for a person to abide in Me in order to bear fruit, it is also efficacious, because he who abides in Me, by believing, obeying and persevering, and I in him, by giving enlightenment, help and perseverance, he it is and not another, that bears much fruit” (Commentary on John. 1991-1992).
Thomas explains that those who abide in Christ avoid sin. They are eager to do the works of holiness, as Paul says: “The return you get is sanctification” (Rom 6:22). They are eager for the progress of others. They gather fruit for eternal life” (Commentary on John. 1992).
Thomas explains, “He says that without Him we cannot do anything great, nor anything small, indeed, we cannot do anything at all.” Thomas thinks that this is not unusual because God doesn’t do anything without Him: “Without Him was not anything made that was made” (Jn 1:3).
For our works are either from the power of nature or from divine grace. If they are from the power of nature, then, since every action of nature is from the Word of God, no nature can act to do anything without Him. If our works are from the power of grace, then, since He is the author of grace – ‘grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’ (1:17) it is obvious that no meritorious work can be done without Him (Commentary on John. 1993).
Paul said: “Not that we are capable of thinking anything of ourselves as originating from ourselves; our capability is from God” [2 Cor 3:5]. Thomas comments: “Therefore, if we cannot even think without it coming from God, much less can we do anything else” (Commentary on John. 1993).
Thomas comments that sometimes a branch will only be hanging externally but it does not get the sap. “In this way also some remain connected to Christ only by faith, yet they do not share the sap of the vine because they do not have charity. Thus, such persons will be cast out, that is, separated from fellowship with the good” (Commentary on John. 1994).
Those who are separate from Christ begin to wither and become dried up. St. Augustine said a branch is good for two things, to be on the vine or to be in the fire (Commentary on John. 1994).
If we remain on the vine, our prayers will be effective. “If you abide in Me, you will obtain this fruit, that is, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.”
Jesus adds, “If you abide in Me and I in you and My words abide in you.” Thomas observes: “Because Christ is the Word of the Father, all words of wisdom are from Him… Thus it is clear that Christ is in us when the words of His wisdom are in us: ‘You do not have His word abiding in you’ (Jn 5:38) (Commentary on John. 1995).
How do Jesus’ words abide in us? Thomas explains: “… by your loving them, believing them, meditating on them and accomplishing them.”
Thomas considers the words of the father in Proverbs: “My son, be attentive to my words,” by believing them; “incline your ear to my sayings,” by obeying or accomplishing them; “let them not escape from your sight,” because you meditate on them; but “keep them within your heart,” by loving them (Prv 4:20). Jeremiah told God: “Your words were found and I ate them” (Jer 15:16) (Commentary on John. 1995).
Thomas declares: “The words of Christ are in us when we do as He commands and love what He promises.” We do not know what we ought to pray for, as Paul states: “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Christ taught us to pray with His own words (Mt 6:9; Lk 11:2) (Commentary on John. 1995).
Thomas teaches: “And so the words of God, when believed and meditated upon, teach us to ask for the things necessary for our salvation; and these words of God when loved and accomplished help us to merit it”: “If you ask anything of the Father in my name he will give it to you” [Jn 16:23] (Commentary on John. 1995).
We give glory to God: “All our works should be directed to the glory of God: ‘Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory” (Ps 115:1); “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” [1 Cor 10:31] (Commentary on John. 1996).
Thomas summarizes: “We are in Christ, because this is why we bear fruit, and because we bear fruit the Father is glorified: By this My Father is glorified, that is, it reflects glory on My Father, that you bear much fruit’” (Commentary on John. 1996).
Thomas explains: “It gives glory to the Father that you bear much fruit, and you bear much fruit because you are My disciples. You do this, first of all, by living well: “That they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16)” (Commentary on John. 1996).
Thomas adds: “You give glory to God… by teaching well, which also glorifies God… And so the apostles are the soil which bears much fruit because they have become the disciples of Christ by abiding in Him and by the fire of their charity” (Commentary on John. 1996).
For these are the signs of a disciple of Christ: first that one abides in him, is united to him: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples” (8:31). And by doing this they become fit for bearing the fruit of teaching. The second sign is charity: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35). And because of this they are able to bear the fruit of good works, because nothing has any value without charity: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries … but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2) (Commentary on John. 1996).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of John, Part II, may be found in the translation by Fr. James A. Weisheipl, O.P. and Fr. Fabian R. Larcher, O.P., published by St. Bede’s Publications.