Ars praedicandi: Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

With all of the references to the natural world
that so frequently punctuate the readings –
especially the Gospels –
I often wonder if it would have been more beneficial
to have studied the natural sciences,
or biology,
or animal husbandry,
or agriculture, rather than
all of the philosophy courses I was mandated to take.

Jesus is continuously talking about the natural world around him:
about foxes and sparrows,
mustard trees and lilies,
and fig trees and yeast.
And when he is not sermonizing on these natural phenomena,
he is knee-deep in loaves and fishes,
sheep and pigs,
and grainfields and seashores.

Today’s Gospel reminds me how little I know
about horticulture, viniculture and oenology.
Oh, don’t get me wrong,
I do know how to operate a corkscrew,
can distinguish a Malbec from a Shiraz,
and even am somewhat skilled at decanting a good wine.

But consumption is decidedly not the key to this familiar Gospel image
of vine and branches,
or especially about the process of pruning for bearing fruit,
so central to this celebrated pericope.
Thus, the past week I’ve been reading a lot about pruning
and why it is essential for all sorts of plants,
but especially for grapevines

Surprisingly, some of the folk leading the way here
are not vintners
nor agriculturalists,
but scientists who specialize in molecular genetics
and computer modeling.

Recently, for example, two collaborating scientists
explained that each shoot tips on a plant
can influence the growth of all others

Active shoot tips release a specific hormone into the main stem,
but if there is too much of that hormone already in the stem
the weaker shoots can’t get into the game.
The system is clogged;
it’s like a crowded main road
blocking other vehicles from entering
from side streets and on-ramps.
So those shoot tips get crowded out, and whither.

Shoot tips actually compete with each other,
with the strongest branches growing the most vigorously.
But thoughtful pruning levels the playing field,
slows the traffic of the stronger branches,
and lets all of the inhibited shoot tips back into the game.

This is an exceedingly important process for grapevines.
Unpruned vines grow in wild, unruly ways.
They explode with new branches and cascades of leaves
that leaves few resources needed for the fruit to grow.
Parallel to this pruning process with grapevines
is the need to train the vines.
This means shaping them to grow
along vertical posts or wires
and then out onto horizontal wires or trellises
so they have more access to sunlight
and are easier to prune
so to produce more fruit.

Until my little excursion into pruning this past week
I think I overlooked an important aspect of today’s Gospel.
When I have listened to this passage before,
I presumed it was about me being connected to Jesus:
he was the vine, I was a branch
and my spiritual task was to stay connected to him.

Pruning, of course, was part of the spiritual discipline.
To prune myself of attitudes and practices
of afflictions and addictions that would prevent me from staying securely grafted
onto the vine of Christ.

What was missing from that vision, however,
was that the pruning and the grafting,
the discipline and the commitment,
the sacrifice and the growing,
are not only for my personal spiritual benefit,
but for the sake of the vineyard,
for the sake of the trellis of disciples,
for the sake of the harvest of justice and reconciliation
that is the authentic fruit of being planted in Christ.

That insight pushed me back into the Gospels
to ponder all of those stories
in which Christ was pruning his disciples for mission.

Remember the sons of Zebedee
whose mother tries to secure high positions for them
In Jesus’ kingdom (Matt 20:20)?
In reply Jesus offers a pruning test,
inquiring whether they can drink of the cup of suffering,
the cup he struggles with in Gethsemane,
before himself being splayed on the sacred trellis of the cross.

Jesus follows up this pruning test with an instruction
about not lording it over each other
but about becoming servants to one another.

Peter gets publicly pruned a number of times,
pointedly when Jesus calls him “Satan”
after the prince of apostles rebukes Jesus
for predicting his own death (Matt 16:23).

And then, more gently
at the very end of John’s Gospel
when Jesus calls Peter’s triple denial
by thrice asking him “do you love me”
and reinforcing Peter’s mission to feed others.

A more cynical approach could suggest
that in such instances
Peter got his wings clipped,
but birds with clipped wings can no longer fly
and Peter with the other disciples needed to soar
in proclaiming the good news after the death of the Lord.

So I prefer to imagine Peter getting pruned,
pared-down,
cut back,
snipped and shaped and trimmed
so that the Gospel, and not just Peter, would bear much fruit

I imagine that is also what happened to St. Paul
who got knocked off his high horse
but not decimated in his encounter with the Risen One.

The Lord needed Paul for the sake of so many communities –
the Corinthians, the Ephesians, the Galatians –
so the Holy Spirit did some serious pruning
so that Christianity itself could be birth and bear fruit.

You and I have probably had parallel experiences
of being cut back, sheared, diminished, and abridged.
Some of those moments, even from decades ago, stay with us:
the rebuke from a teacher or coach by
not getting the scholarship or making the team.
There are scores of these stories on the internet
that continue to simmer in so many souls

Sometimes the pruning is destructive, even abusive.
I remember a section from Dr. Damon Tweedy’s
Black man in a White Coat. [1]
that share the reflections of an African American Doctor
and his journey through medical school, residency, and practice.

From a working-class family with only a public education,
Tweedy was accepted
into the prestigious medical school at Duke University

He tells the story of being in a large lecture class
and during a break in the lecture
while students were milling about
the professor, who seldom if ever spoke to students,
made a b-line for Tweedy and asked
“Are you here to fix the lights?”

When Tweedy didn’t understand the inquiry,
the professor pointed to one section of the lecture hall
where the lights were noticeably low.

And so he asked again, so you going to fix the lights.
When Tweedy said “no”,
the Professor then asked,
“Then what are you doing in my class?”
“I’m a student in your class,” Tweedy responded

This prompted the irritated professor to turn without a word
and return to the front of the room
slamming the door on the dignity of a promising student
judged worthy of only being part of a maintenance staff
because of the color of his skin.

That, in my estimation, was not pruning but professorial abuse
and the litmus test for distinguishing between the two
comes to us from today’s second reading, that is,
whether the pruning is motivated by love.

While scars from past diminishments inflicted by others abound,
maybe part of the hidden spirituality of today’s Gospel
touches our own self-diminishment.
Some of us are growing older,
some of us are becoming sicker,
some of us are moving past our intellectual
or physical prime.
As our employability abates,
our abilities to play the game with the same vigor recedes
and our leadership skills start to atrophy.
We become aware that nature itself is pruning us
and we have little apparent control over such declines.

On the other hand, we do have control
over how we respond to this natural ebbing of mind & body,
over whether or not we allow ourselves to be pared back –
in a spirit of generosity – so that our families,
our friends and our community can bear new fruit,
or whether we hold on tightly,
forcing others to compete for the energy,
the light,
and the love we crave to absorb.

I have two great friends, long-married,
who pondered diminishment as they wrote about
the spirituality of marriage.
In a veiled autobiographical way,
they chart the stages of marriage over many decades.
The last stage is what they call “devotion.”

They write:
In time, the shape of aging love earns the name of devotion. Devotion is the enfleshed affection that survives illness and aging and enjoys growing old together. The ancient author Plutarch (d. 120 AD) wrote: “the love for a virtuous woman suffers no autumn but flourishes even with grey hair and wrinkles.” By this point child-rearing is long gone, active careers are over, the couple’s love becomes an affection nuanced by the awareness of final days, of threatening illness. Such devotion might be called eros with wrinkles. [2]

Nature prunes us all, at one stage or another.
The example of Jesus, radically pruned on Golgotha
invites us into the unlikely spiritual practice of diminishment:
the devotion of stepping aside so that others might flourish,
trimmed back so that others might have more sunlight,
receding to the margins so that others
might more easily claim the center.

And so, with the poet we muse
there are moments when the veil seems
almost to lift, and we understand what
the earth is meant to mean to us — the
trees in their docility, the hills in
their patience, the flowers and the
vines in their wild, sweet vitality.
Then the Word is within us, and the
Book is put away. [3]

Today we pray that the veil might lift a bit
and Jesus’ Word might truly be in us,
eternally connecting us to the vine
whose Gospel prunes us only for generously
helping others bear fruit in a rich kingdom harvest
through Christ our Lord.


[1] Damon Tweedy, Black Man in a White Coat (New York: Picador, 2015).

[2] James and Evelyn Whitehead, “­­Promises to Keep: A Spirituality of Christian Marriage,” in Catholic Marriage: A Pastoral-Liturgical Handbook, ed. Edward Foley (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2019), p. 9.

[3] Mary Oliver, “The Veil,” https://muse.jhu.edu/article/214662

6 comments

  1. Excellent !!!! Thank you! This essay complimented our Small Christian community prayer meeting tonight as we go on to reflection on this weeks readings.

  2. This sure came at an opportune moment in my life. I have been an elementary music teacher for 45 years and I am retiring at the end of May this year. I spent a little more than 25 years in my current district building a music curriculum and establishing a culture of singing among the families. That all changes next year. The district has decided it’s time to rethink, restructure, and reevaluate Arts Education for the coming years. The changes are sweeping and are causing a lot of hurt and anxiety (especially in me).
    Then I read this… and I started to see the changes as necessary pruning and proper tending of the vineyard. The Word literary took root in me and the anger and hurt have been transformed. God really is very good!

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