Getting rid of “suckers” is one of the purposes of pruning in agriculture. What are “suckers,” you might ask? If you are doing some urban gardening and are raising tomatoes, for example, you might be wondering why your tomatoes look very lush and healthy but they’re bearing fruit very poorly. It means you are not pruning the suckers.
If you observe the tomato vine and its branches, every now and then you will find some little shoots sprouting right at the joint where a branch on the tomato plant meets a stem. Apparently they are called “suckers” because they literally suck the plant’s nutrients into an oversupply of leaves and deprive the other branches of the limited supply of nutrients that are much needed for fruit-bearing. You end up with a healthy-looking tomato vine that blooms but whose flowers don’t mature into fruits.
It looks like the Gospel writer was fully aware of “suckers” in his description of the care of grape vines in a vineyard to obtain their maximum fruitfulness. He says, “My Father takes away every branch in me that does not bear much fruit, and everyone that does he prunes, so that it bears more fruit.”
In our first reading, we are told by St. Luke that the early Christian community, which originally consisted mainly of Jewish converts, was beginning to branch out because many Gentile converts were joining the new movement and Paul was welcoming them and baptizing them too.
Some people in the Church were not comfortable about this new branch among the early Christians. In fact it could have been the reason why John Mark abandoned the first mission team headed by his uncle, Barnabas. We are told in the Acts of the Apostles that Mark had deserted them and proceeded, not to Antioch but to Jerusalem. (Acts 13:13)
Today’s first reading tells us a delegation from Jerusalem had come to tell Barnabas and Paul to stop what they were doing. Remember, I told you about this a few days ago—about the two kinds of people who attended the Synagogue worship: the insiders (namely, the ethnic Jews) and the outsiders (namely, the Gentile converts to Judaism). The outsiders could be allowed only in the outer courtyard reserved for the Gentiles.
In the diaspora, Paul was beginning to get more converts from the outsiders. Now there are people reacting and saying they should be pruned or “nipped in the bud,” as they would say in English. They were regarded, as it were, as “suckers.”
Remember how, earlier, Luke had told us that the widows and orphans among the Hellenists were not receiving as much food rations from their community pantries, and how the apostles had to appoint deacons to address the issue? (Acts 6:1) I suspect that there were members who looked down on the Gentile converts, especially the poor ones among them. Perhaps they were insinuating that the “Gentile converts” were just “suckers,” that they were only after a free lunch.
Get rid of them, or have them circumcised first; this was the solution that was being proposed by the group that called Paul’s attention (Acts 15:1). But Paul resists their move. His point is, “No, do not cut off a tender branch that the Lord himself has allowed to grow. You will damage the vine itself. This is the work of the Holy Spirit; do not stifle it.”
And so they settled the conflict in the first dialogue ever held, the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Through the mediation of Peter, Paul won and kept the door of Christian faith open to Gentile converts.
If the opponents had succeeded in excluding the Gentile converts from the Church, perhaps the Church would have remained a sectarian movement within Judaism. Or perhaps it would have simply died a natural death.
The tendencies to keep the Church into an elite movement of a righteous few remain very much alive until this day and age. There are still many Catholics who want to treat the Eucharist as an exclusive meal for the holy and deserving ones. There are still those who are quick at condemning sinners as “suckers,” forgetting that Christ died for them too.
They would rather keep the shepherds in the company of the ninety-nine who are already safe, than have them go out in search of the last, the least and the lost. It’s still the same old story two thousand years later. Will the Church behave as a remnant community of a few righteous people who deserve to be saved? Or will she be true to her call to a mission of mercy as a saving community that refuses to waste the precious blood of the redeemer?
Homily of Bishop Pablo Virgilio David for Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Easter, May 5, 2021, Jn 15:1-8