In this next part we come to a dilemma, or at least I do. Jesus is going to talk about vines, branches, fruit and a gardener. As I’ve mentioned in these pages, I am not the green thumb in my family. Honestly, my palate isn’t sophisticated enough to tell a great deal of difference between our homegrown, organic tomatoes and those strip-mined from Mexico. When I was told a tomato was a fruit and not a vegetable I became despondent. All this time I had been counting marinara sauce toward my meager vegetable count.
All of that notwithstanding, we are going to drill down for a bit on gardening. The aforementioned dilemma has nothing to do with my less than average gardening skills but rather with my just above average Greek skills. I enjoy unpacking the meaning of words. And right off the bat we come up against a translation conundrum that I hope to sort out. Let’s have a look at what has gotten my logophile ire up: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 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.” ~John 15:1,2
That seems pretty straight forward. Jesus is the vine and there are branches shooting off in every direction. The ones that are starting to bear fruit he prunes back. The ones that show no sign of bearing fruit are cut off. Look at the verse. It says it right there – the gardener, the Father, cuts off every branch that doesn’t bear fruit. It sounds so summary and so final. And yet…there’s that pesky Greek thing.
I’ve compared dozens of translations regarding the portion that says: “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.” (Note: Just for the record, I usually quote from the NIV. I do that for the sake of readability, not necessarily for its literal fidelity to the Greek. That’s why I’m here)! Most of the translations say something less harsh. Let me give you the King James Version: “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away.” That represents the interpretation of most translators – the sense of the non fruit-bearing branch being removed.
But…neither of these actually capture the literal meaning of the Greek in this portion and it bothers me for a couple of reasons. First of all, I believe the words are there in the originals for a reason and that we shouldn’t mess with the most common etymology of a word or phrase. Secondly, it bothers me because I grow suspicious when my translation of a word or phrase appears a novelty. Those who are frequently novel tend also to be frequently heretical!
Yet, when I linger over the original in this phrase I come away with something that vectors in an entirely different direction. The word translated either as cut off (NIV) or, taketh away (KJV) in the original is: αἴρω (ī’-rō) and mostly it is taken to mean: to raise up, to elevate, to lift up. What if Jesus is saying something incredible to his disciples? What if he is saying: “He raises up, he elevates, he lifts up every branch in me that bears no fruit”? It is no disrespect or presumption to either the Greek or to grace to consider this view. We’ll have another go at both this verse and that “fruit” (tomato) a bit tomorrow. The answer to the riddle has been growing just outside my kitchen window all summer.