I saw a tragi-comic sight last week. While leaving a grocery store parking lot, I drove past a man walking his dog; the dog was wearing a football jersey. The jersey was made for a human to wear, but the human had put the jersey on the dog.
The dog’s front legs were long enough to fill the sleeves, but the dog’s body was too short to fill the body of the shirt. As a result, the dog repeatedly tripped over the shirttail of the football jersey. The dog seemed rather accustomed to the farce but had a look of quiet desperation on its face.
I understand a sports fan’s desire to publicize the reputation of a favorite team, but football jerseys are designed for use by humans. To put a football jersey on a dog is possible, but more than merely eccentric. Given the dog’s obvious discomfort and inability to walk properly, the situation was untenable and bordered on being cruel.
I’d like to suggest that image of a dog struggling to walk while engulfed in a much too large football jersey as a means to grasp the meaning of today’s Gospel reading.
In today’s Gospel, we have yet another agrarian allegory used by and about Jesus. Like last week’s allegory about sheep and the good shepherd, this image of vines and grapes would have been intimately familiar to Jesus’ audience. Grape vines were a common crop plant and a major source of employment in the ancient world.
The act of joining a branch to a vine would have been known to most people during Jesus’ lifetime. The ancient Judeans chafed under Roman occupation but would have acknowledged grudgingly the contribution that Roman technology had made to their lives. The Romans pioneered the practice of grafting grape vines; their improved, grafted vines produced larger crops that were better adapted to the locations where they grew.
During Jesus’ lifetime, most people would have understood the obvious meaning of the image, namely, that a branch grafted onto a vine depended entirely on the rootstock of the plant for its survival. Furthermore, a good graft would produce a healthy plant and an augmented crop. Only the most faithful of Jesus’ disciples, however, would have understood the theological message that Jesus was trying to communicate. Jesus said, “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (Jn. 15:8)
What does it mean to glorify God? How does bearing “much fruit” describe faithful discipleship? I’d like to suggest the image of the poor, hapless dog dressed in its owner’s football jersey.
God’s desire for human persons is that we live at peace with God and one another. The salvation made possible by Jesus’ sacrificial death on the Cross is a renewed life in which one gives God the worship that God deserves and gives one’s neighbors the responsible behavior that they deserve. Discipleship is the lifelong task of coming to know God, learning Jesus’ teachings, and putting those teachings into practice daily. This renewed life of faith gives glory to God by making God’s mercy present to the world through the actions of Jesus’ disciples. All of this depends, however, on grasping one, fundamental truth: that human nature has a divinely ordained goal.
Our existence in this world is not indeterminate. There is a goal for our lives. The goal is to live at peace with God and one another. There are many possible substitutes for this goal, but none lead to a peaceful, fruitful life.
It is possible, for example, to misuse one’s life in the same way that it is possible to put a football jersey on a dog. It is possible to live as if no one’s life except one’s own has any value. It is possible to live as if other people exist only for the sake of serving one’s need for attention and affirmation. It is possible to live as if freedom does not require responsibility. It is possible to live as if the consequences of one’s actions are meaningless as long as they don’t cause one any discomfort. It is possible to treat religion as nothing more than a scheme to obtain individual, eternal benefits at little to no cost.
I hope you grasp my point: it is fully possible to distort, disrupt, and even destroy one’s life (and the lives of others), but doing so constitutes a failed human existence.
It is fully possible to go through one’s life like that poor dog who was forced to trip over the tail of the football jersey. It is fully possible to choose to limp, stumble, and fall repeatedly while failing to live constructively with wider society. It is possible, but truly sad and it borders on cruelty.
If you find that you’re limping through life or that you have resigned yourself to despair in the face of a cruel fate, it might well be that you have chosen an untenable goal. If you struggle with relationships and find it impossible to forgive other people’s failings, you might be living a failed life. The goal of human life is to live at peace with God and neighbor. This goal is not only desirable but easily attainable; it requires no more (and no less) than a disciple’s trust in Jesus.
Jesus said, “Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches.” (Jn. 15:4-5) Baptism into Jesus’ death grafts one to the life-giving vine; any other choice leads to a life that is withered and decayed. The fruits of one’s choices are clearly visible. Where do you see the fruits of discipleship in your life?