I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5
As believers, we are grafted in to the True Vine and bear fruit that is true to His plan. But, as we know from horticulture, the grafting process requires blood, the blood of the tree. In the case of Christians, it is Christ’s blood and the sacrifice of our old selves that allow grafting to occur. As we grow and allow Jesus to strengthen us, we are able to produce spiritual fruit that benefits others.
But, sometimes there are folks who appear to be grafted into the tree but instead, they are parasites that eventually kill it. How can we detect these folks and prevent this? First, we must know what true grafting looks like so we can address this co-dependency in the church.
One vine, many branches
In horticulture, you do not graft just any old trees. This process is only used with fruit trees. Growers do it to keep the fruit true to the original variety. The fruit seeds do not reliably produce the same fruit as the parent tree, so they can’t grow fruit trees from seed. Instead, branches are grafted in to another tree by cutting both of them at a particular place at a particular time. The two wounds are taped together. As the branch grows, it becomes part of the new tree, producing delicious fruit. Interestingly, you can sometimes see citrus trees with lemons, oranges, and tangerines all growing from the trunk of yet another type of fruit tree! This is a beautiful example of how people from all different “trees” can produce good fruit by being grafted in to the True Vine.
Notice that the branches cannot graft themselves to the new tree. They need a gardener to come along and do it for them. Without intervention, they bear sour, mealy fruit.
Not what it seems
There is another way that “branches” can become attached to healthy trees. A grafted-in branch continues to get its food from the sun, but this other type of branch gets its food from the tree itself, killing the tree. About 1% of plants get their needs met by leeching off of other plants as parasites.
Have you ever heard of parasitic plants? There are over 4,000 species of them. They are found all over the world in many different habitats. Like a grafted branch, they are attached to trees. However, they need no intervention and they do not become part of the tree. They maintain their separateness except for one thing. They all use a modified root, called a haustorium, that penetrates the host plant, literally sucking the life out of it until it dies. An example is mistletoe.
These parasites do not produce tasty fruit. Often, their fruit is poisonous, their flowers are stinky, and they always cause the host tree to die a slow death. Sometimes, people are like that, too.
Jesus rebukes some parasitic people in John 6:26: I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. And then later, in verse 41, the people grumbled. They didn’t want Jesus. They just wanted the benefits.
Have you ever met folks who didn’t want a real relationship with you, just the benefits of what you have to offer them? Do you have relatives that never call unless they need money? Acquaintances that are too busy to become friends but always seem to show up at parties?
How about church attendees that always seem to need food or financial assistance, show up at every picnic, but don’t participate in small groups, come to church regularly, or serve in any way?
If we are not careful, these folks will suck the life out of us and the church. But, sometimes all of us are a bit needy. We go through seasons of life when we need a lot of support and have little to give. How can we tell the difference between a parasitic person and a person who’s just going through a tough spell?
You shall know them by their fruits
In Luke 6:43, Jesus says, No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.
And in Galatians 5:22-23, Paul tells us about these fruits: But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
How can you tell if your needy friend is a parasitic person or a believer going through a trial? Look at how they are handling their situation. Do they have a grumbling, complaining, gossipy spirit or a joyful, peaceful spirit? Are they still interested in others and trying to minimize their own needs or are they minimizing others’ needs and emphasizing their own? When you stop helping them, do they stop calling you or coming to church?
Another way to discern whether a person is a believer under trial or a parasite is by looking at how they treat others.
You shall know them by their love
Jesus tells us that true followers of Him obey Him and love others as He loved us.
John 13:35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
John 14:15 If you love me, you will obey what I command.
Those who have been grafted into the True Vine, the real believers, show love to each other. There may be times when they go through trials and cannot pour into the lives of others. But, their lives as a whole demonstrate obedience to God and genuine love for other Christians. Parasitic people do not show this pattern. Very often, they show up at the church all of a sudden looking for money, food, rides to places (other than to church), and other things. When people stop helping them, they disappear. They did not really want fellowship. They did not really want Jesus.
What do we do?
We do what Jesus did. Stop giving out the freebies and offer them the Bread of Life, Living Water, the food that gives eternal life—Jesus. If they don’t want Jesus, then they are taking advantage of the good will of the church. They are like the crowds who only wanted their stomachs filled, not their spirits.
In personal relationships, if one person is sucking the life out of another person, it is an unhealthy co-dependency. Do not be deceived into thinking that you are not being a good Christian if you stop helping that person. You are actually helping them more, loving them more, by forcing them to change.
There are others that can endanger the church, too, such as false prophets. I talk more about that here.