Reflection on Psalm 116
“I love the Lord BECAUSE he has heard me…”
The Church Calendar marks today as Maundy Thursday. “The day of new covenant,” when during the Passover meal, Jesus took bread and broke it, “Take and eat, this is my body. Do this in remembrance of me.” Then Jesus took a cup, possibly the Passover cup known as the “cup of salvation” and gave it to the disciples saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Today’s Psalm, Psalm 116, comes from the Egyptian Hallel, otherwise known as the praise songs centering on Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Psalms 113 through 118 compose this collection, with Ps. 114 as the centerpiece as a report of the events of the Exodus. Today’s Psalm in particular, Ps. 116, recounts an individual’s deliverance from death. The delivering hand of God that brings about exodus from death on the macro, works to bring about deliverance on the micro.
And so, it is this collection of Exodus psalms that is traditionally sung at Passover. It might not have been the final hymn, but sometime during that night before the crucifixion, Jesus and his disciples probably prayed and sang Psalm 116.
And I wonder if these words haunted Jesus as he prayed in Gethsemane:
I will lift up the cup of salvation
“Father, is you are willing remove this cup…”
“Because, he has inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on his name…”
“Why are you sleeping, get up and pray with me..”
“For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.”
“In anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling on the ground…”
““I love the Lord BECAUSE he has heard me…”
“Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying me?”
““I love the Lord BECAUSE he has heard me…”
Does prayer work? How does prayer work? How should I pray so that it works?
We’ve all asked these questions.
Use of Self Help Books & the corporate mandated moments for meditation…instead of questioning the 80 work week that causes the need for breaks for meditation.
While facing execution in a Nazi concentration camp, theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer became concerned that the Christian understanding of God had been reduced to a mere psychological crutch. Bonhoeffer describes this understanding of God as the dues ex machina.
Literally translated, Deus Ex Machina means “god out of the machine,” which originally refers to a technique used by the ancient Greek playwrights to lower a person (representing a god or goddess) onto the stage of a play to interrupt the plotline.
Eventually this plot device became so overused by lazy and second rate playwrights, that unsolvable problems were solved by introducing the dues ex machina, and it became known as a clumsy plot device for interjecting an unexpected solution to the internal logic of the narrative.
Of course this plot device is common in today’s literature and tv, especially soap operas.
If you are familiar with the hit 80’s TV show, Dallas, then you probably know of one of the most famous modern day examples of dues ex machina. At the end of season 6, Patrick Duffy who played Bobby Ewing wanted to leave the show. So of course, the writers killed him off.
After his death, it became obvious from the huge drop in ratings that Bobby was one of the most popular characters on the show. After convincing Patrick Duffy to come back to the show, they ended season seven with one of the most surreal cliffhangers in TV history.
Just moments before the credits roll, we see Bobby Ewing’s widow wake up and approach the bathroom. She is shocked, as are the viewers, to find her husband standing in the shower, safe and sound.
The reason? The entire 7th season had been nothing but his wife’s dream.
The church in the West and especially those of us who consider ourselves religious often, unwittingly approach God as dues ex machina. God is merely an idea dropped clumsily into our world in order to fulfill a task. Or to put it in more modern terms, God is a vending machine, if I push the right buttons and do the right things I’ll be given what I need.
Instead of expressing a lived reality, God has merely become a solution to our problems. We broach prayer only or mostly when we are in need.
Thus, the result is a neutered God who simply justifies our beliefs and practices without questioning the status quo. A status quo that allowed the german church during the time of Bonhoeffer to be complicit in the murder of millions of Jews,
A status quo that today allows Christian churches to hide behind security, wealth, and psychological projections of who we wish God to be.
The same status quo that allows:
“A florida boy to be chased down and shot for wearing a hoodie,”
“A San Deigo Mom to be beaten to death in her own home for wearing the traditional Muslim garb, the hijab.”
The status quo that allows CEO’s to make 315% more than the average employee.”
“the USA to incarcerate more of its population than any country, and incarcerate minorities at alarmingly disproportionate rates”
A status quo that creates
“a world with more slaves than ever before.”
“where the world’s wealthiest 16% consume over 80% of the world’s resources.”
A status quo that calls for peace by means of violence, security by means of fences, and wealth by means of injustice.
As Martin Luther King taught us, "Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere."
What we must realize is that as long as some are dehumanized in this world, all are dehumanized. Or until we are all set free to live fully, we are all held in captivity.
Does prayer work? At this point I’m not ready to answer this question, but I do know that prayer and God can be used to simply uphold our dehumanize and dehumanizing lifestyles when God becomes an empty vessel we dump all of our fears, desires, and wishes.
When we stop at letting God work to bring about new reality, or God’s kingdom as Jesus called it,
and we settle into the status quo as our home,
then God becomes merely a legitimating force,
so prayer becomes nothing more than the human psychological tendency for wish fulfillment, to help us cope with our own dehumanized lives.
What does it mean that Jesus, moments before his betrayal, trial, and murder prayed this prayer of deliverance in Ps. 116?
Jesus bends down in the garden, brow dripping with sweat, heart pounding with anxiety and prays, “Father, if you are willing, let this cup pass from me, yet, not my will but yours be done.”
The Psalmist empowered Jesus to trust that it is not prayer that works, but rather it is God who is at work.
God is at work in the world, and to be honest, I need Jesus to help me embrace God’s will:
the will that calls into question the dehumanizing status quo of violence, security, and unchecked wealth, that calls into question my need and desire to only have a little bit of God, to approach God as my vending machine.
Alive with the hope and imagination of the Psalter, Jesus is able to give up his own needs and wants and give into God’s will, God’s work. Alive with this beautifully rich prayer from Ps. 116,
Jesus can trust that God delivers both on the micro and macro level.
So, Jesus doesn’t allow God to merely be an empty vessel for us to dump our fears and wishes into like a vending machine for our happiness.
Rather, like Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and Jesus we must trust this new reality even to the point of giving up what we think we most need.
And with the Psalter and Jesus we wait for the day when “we will walk in the presence of the Lord, in the land of the living,” where none are dehumanized, oppressed, or put to death unjustly.
“I love the Lord, …”
I love the Lord.