Thursday, September 5, 2013

Literal or Allegorical Psalm 80? It's Up to You.

We are supposed to interpret the psalms as we pray them. That is, we are supposed to take note of what the psalm is about and what God is showing or telling us here. And there are several ways to do this.

The first psalm of morning prayer today kind of mixes its metaphors, speaking of God as a shepherd but also as a  vinedresser. Or maybe as a shepherd who tends a  vineyard on the side? But rather than obsessing how this sort of agriculture would work out literally, we should instead just go with the flow and see what these metaphors mean.

We can use the "literal" sense by seeing what the psalmist is telling us about: the people of Israel. This psalm was written at some low point for the kingdom of Israel, after the destruction of the temple, and perhaps when the people were already in exile. The vine, once huge but now unprotected and ravaged by beasts, represents God's people, once a mighty kingdom but now sadly fallen   as a result of their sins. It's a realistic assessment of the situation, but not without hope. The refrain God of hosts, bring us back, let your face shine on us and we shall be saved expresses confidence in the Lord's ability to save his people in the fullness of time.

We can move quickly on to the allegorical sense. That is, we can say "Where do I see Jesus in this psalm?"
Well, we have the Good Shepherd  there in the opening verse. We can think of the parable of the vineyard, where the tenant farmers (who represent Israel) reject the owner's son (Jesus) and suffer for it: Israel recapitulating its past errors and experiencing destruction as a result. OR we might recall I am the vine and your are the branches, and see the vine as a metaphor for the Church, which in many places is undergoing decline and/or persecution.  Which brings us to...

The moral sense: how does this psalm apply to me?  Easy! Reflect that what you are doing with your breviary is praying liturgically: praying united to the universal body of believers and on its behalf! You are beseeching God to visit this vine, and to protect it.  And when you get to this verse: may your hand be on the man  you have chosen, you might see that as a quick petition for the health and strength of Pope Francis, or your bishop, or your pastor.

Oh yes, there's also the eschatological sense, that is, how does  this psalm  aim me towards my proper end, which is eternal life? Let your face shine on us and we shall be saved doesn't just apply to a peaceful, persecution-free life on earth. It means that peaceful or not, the only thing that really matters in this life, is acheiving that final union with God that we call Salvation.

Is it  possible to think of all these things as you read through this psalm one Thursday each month? No, probably not. But if just one such idea pops into your mind as you pray this psalm, then you're doing well. You are offering the psalm as the prayer of the Church AND you are profiting from it personally.