Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This portion of Psalm 80 responds to the first lesson from Isaiah 5 by employing the same metaphor of God’s people as a ruined, forsaken vine and vineyard.

October 2, 2011

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Commentary on Psalm 80:7-15

This portion of Psalm 80 responds to the first lesson from Isaiah 5 by employing the same metaphor of God’s people as a ruined, forsaken vine and vineyard.

In the first lesson, Isaiah argues God’s side: in spite of my loving viticulture, my grape people were a failure; there was nothing for it but to abandon them and the whole project. The psalm then argues the people’s side seeking God’s restoration to wholeness.

I’m a loyal fan of The Revised Common Lectionary but let me say that allowing verses 7, 14, and 15 to represent the gist of the people’s appeal takes some of the fun out of the juxtaposition of Psalm 80 with Isaiah 5 and Matthew 21. As the first reading and gospel reading make clear, God expects the vineyard to produce fruits of the Reign: justice and righteousness.

What’s striking about the people’s defense in Psalm 80 is the absence of mention of God’s vineyard mission. The psalm seems concerned only with the grandeur of the vine and the restoration of the special relationship once enjoyed between God and God’s own people. In verses 1-6, the people address God in unctuous tones, reminding God of the divine power to save and then appealing to God’s (or is it only the people’s) honor and reputation: “You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves” (verse 6). Then (following the appointed verses) in verse 16, the psalm calls not for mercy but rather for God’s vengeance to rain down upon the boars and beasts who have had their way with the vineyard.

The appointed verses begin with a simple request for restoration (verse 7). Then the psalmist hearkens back to Exodus and the conquest of Canaan, reminding God that the vineyard was God’s own project (verse 8). The description in verses 9-11 of the vineyard’s success deserves some attention from the preacher’s imagination. It is a picture of a grotesque grape vine that towers over cedar trees and mountains and stretches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan and beyond.

Sure, it’s only a metaphor celebrating God’s provision of the land promised to Abraham and Sarah. But the people’s pride in this uncanny vine provides an entry point for pointing out dissonance between their vision and God’s. Vineyards need protection because grape production involves the maintenance of tricky bio-chemical balances accompanied by a trust in ruthless discipline (one adage has it that the vintner must “cut the plants back as far as he or she can stand and then give the pruning saw to someone who hates wine”). Monster vines don’t need protection; nor are they likely to bear the best fruit.

The weakness of the people’s appeal is shown most vividly in the question posed in verse 12, “Why have you broken down its wall …?” God has never been bashful about chastising the chosen people nor about explaining to them exactly why (cf. today’s first reading!). God disciplines (prunes) so that the people may grow and bear fruits that befit God’s mission. God’s people here seem to want restoration of their prosperity, reputation, and “goodness with God” simply for their own sake.

When I’m sitting in worship on October 2 I want to hear you explore whether the people’s “case” in Psalm 80 (especially verses 8-11) bears any spiritual metaphorical relationship to the fretful handwringing of the mainline churches in North American (including, sadly, some in my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) over our “decline.” “We took root and once filled the land! The Appalachians and Rockies were covered by our shadow (though perhaps never the Cascades or Sierra Nevadas). Our boughs and tendrils towered over…”

Well, you get the idea. In what ways do our visions of our former or hoped-for grandeur make grotesque the metaphors into which we have been invited to live: servant, steward, lamb? And then, with the rich judgments of Isaiah 5 and Matthew 21 as background, proclaim as Gospel the confidence we have to pray, with the psalmist (verses 14-15), “Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted,” adding, “for the sake of your mission in the word.”