My friends, Chuck and Mary, some years ago turned a Henry County, Kentucky, tobacco farm into a vineyard and winery. They grow hay, keep a large vegetable garden and busy themselves with other crops, but wine is the farm’s major product. Recently, my wife and I drove down to visit. The two of us talked with Mary and her mother in a shady spot near the old dairy shed, but Chuck was busy pruning vines. Sweaty and dirty, he called to us from a distance, but there wasn’t time to stop and chat.
Mary told how she used to help Chuck with the pruning, but Chuck’s a perfectionist and prefers to do it alone, his way. Cutting the vine in the right places is an exacting, necessary task. Unpruned, vines grow in wild, unruly ways, exploding with heavy new branches and leaf cascades, but little fruit.
Sometimes the couple lets Mary’s father’s sheep graze in the vineyard to keep the weeds down. How they prevent them from nibbling at the grapes I don’t know. It’s hard to train the animals. I learned from watching shepherds on the Navajo Reservation that being called “the sheep of His flock” is no complement. Unwatched, sheep scatter and lose their way, wandering heedlessly into danger.
The images Jesus offers us this Sunday and last are graphic reminders of our abject dependence, our pitiful lack of judgment. Without a shepherd who (unlike the hired hand) remains with us in danger, even at the cost of his life, we stray to solitary deaths. Without a vinegrower pruning away superfluous, misguided efforts, we bear little or no fruit.
If we remain in the flock, on the vine, we are tended in safety, trellised to fullness, kept from disasters of our own making. Sheep don’t appear happy at the jab of a shepherd’s stick, the snarl of a herding dog. A vine newly pruned looks forlorn, nearly barren. But a stray lamb looks far worse when a wolf – or these days in Henry County, a coyote – finds it. And a branch pruned from the vine quickly withers, fit for nothing but fire or compost.
Where must the shepherd keep you from wandering? What in your life must be pruned away before you can bear good fruit?