Historical Cultural Context
God the Patron
In the Mediterranean world, even God needs honor! “My Father has been honored [= glorified] in this,” says Jesus, “in your bearing much fruit and becoming my disciples” (Jn 15:8). The social reality that stands behind this statement is the Mediterranean institution of patronage.
In societies where central government is weak and ineffective, people have to look after their own needs. Most often they help each other by bartering or trading. When social equals are unable to help each other, they must seek someone with greater means who is expected to play the role of patron.
A patron freely chooses clients and serves them by giving them goods they are unable to obtain by their own efforts or on terms better than they could obtain. The people of Israel viewed and behaved toward their God as their patron. The people considered themselves clients, and key people like prophets were considered brokers. In the New Testament world, Jesus clearly presents himself as a broker of God the patron who heals, sends rain, and bestows other favors upon his clients.
The imagery of “remaining in” Jesus the “true” vine (Jn 15:4-7) which has replaced the former vine, Israel (see Isa 5:1-7), reflects the normal and expected Middle Eastern “solidarity” between client and patron, even to the point of the client’s self-effacement. The client’s bond with the patron must be single-minded and single-hearted. Life itself depends upon it.
A client can never repay the munificence of a patron. Instead, a grateful client publicizes the patron’s generosity far and wide. This is how the patron’s honor is proclaimed, maintained, and even augmented.
The broker shares in this honor, too, because the broker benefits every time the patron benefits and vice-versa. If God the patron’s clients become disciples of Jesus his broker, God the patron benefits in double measure. The number of those who proclaim God’s honor continues to grow.
Now we can begin to understand the meaning of “bearing fruit.” Jesus proposes that ultimately this impersonal (patron-broker-client) symbiotic relationship should blossom into friendship (Jn 15:15) characterized by love demonstrated in the willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Jesus himself is the model of such loving friendship.
But the evangelist is writing these words to Christians living in the last decade of the first century, under Roman domination, and threatened by political harassment and persecution. He wishes to encourage and strengthen fearful believers. He recalls Jesus’ words “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (Jn 15:20) and his advice that “apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). Readers will also remember Jesus’ earlier comment: “if [a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies], it produces much fruit” (Jn 12:24).
How does one honor God by bearing much fruit? Pilate consented to Jesus’ execution when Jesus’ enemies warned that any other decision would indicate that “you are not Caesar’s friend” (Jn 19:12). In the vine passage, John reminds his readers that it is more important to remain Jesus’ friend, and through that God’s friend, than to preserve one’s life.
What can American believers learn from the Mediterranean style of solidarity (vine and branches) lived by their ancestors in the faith?
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University