As a young boy, Jesus learned to pray as a faithful member of God’s people. In the morning, before work, before meals, in the evening and at night, Jesus would sanctify each day with prayers taken from the psalms. This was the bread that nourished his spiritual life. In praying these inspired songs, Jesus had ready at hand the language to praise and glorify the Father. He also had a primer in which to read and understand his own life and mission. No one can understand Jesus today without looking to the psalms.
As is still the custom among pious Jews, Jesus’ mother taught him from his earliest years to pray, before retiring for the night, verse 6 of Psalm 31: “Into your hands, I commend my spirit.” This single verse captures the meaning of the entire psalm for it expresses the spirit of confidence in every other verse. From beginning to end, the psalm exudes a sense of trust in God, even in the midst of danger and great suffering.
The 6th century prophet Jeremiah, who faced much hostility and opposition to his mission, prayed this psalm frequently. Often he framed his pleas to God with its words (cf. Jer 6:25; 18:18; 20:3; 22:28; 46:5 and 49:29). Likewise, the prophet Jonah knew this psalm well and prayed it. When in the belly of the great fish, he cried out to God for help using this prayer of confidence (cf. Jonah 2:8).
The author of Psalm 31 describes himself in language reminiscent of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. He has become “a thing of scorn” to “foes” and “neighbors” and a horror to his “friends.” All abandon him, turning their faces from him, just as the enemies of the Suffering
Servant do to him (cf. Ps 31:12 with Isaiah 53:3).
Like the Suffering Servant, the psalmist does not deserve the distress and anguish that he is forced to endure. When he cries out to God, “I have become like a broken vessel,” he gives witness to the fact that he feels that he is suffering the fate of the wicked. The word “broken” literally means “perishing.” But, it is the wicked that are supposed to perish, not the just (cf. Ps 1:6; 2:12). The psalmist sees himself as someone who, though innocent, is suffering the fate that belongs to sinners.
In detailing his situation, the psalmist uses formulae standard for psalms of lament. He describes his suffering in the most graphic terms. He is facing nothing less than the power of death. Nonetheless, his confidence is unshaken. God remains his “rock of refuge,” his “fortress,” his “stronghold” and “shelter” in the midst of his affliction.
The psalmist knows that he who trusts unreservedly in God will inevitably face opposition from those who put their trust in this world. He also knows that God never abandons him even in the darkest hour. He prays with firm confidence, “My destiny is in your hands; rescue me from my enemies.” He ends his prayer with gratitude to God who hears his petitions, rescues him and places him in the shelter of his divine presence. And, he urges others to have the same trust in God, because God is faithful.
How effortlessly this ancient psalm falls fresh from the lips of Jesus. He lived his whole life in total dependence on God. Yet, he was despised and rejected. Even his neighbors and friends fled from him in his hour of suffering. Praying Psalm 31 often from the days of his youth, Jesus had grown in his own confidence in God’s fidelity to his people. He also came to see in this psalm his own passion story, already written even before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is no wonder, then, that, just as the darkness of death descends upon Jesus on the Cross, Jesus prays the very prayer that his mother had taught him to say before the darkness of night ended each day.
Matthew and Mark tell us that, at the moment of his death, Jesus uttered a “loud cry” and then breathed his last. John records his last words as the victory shout “It is finished.” According to Luke, however, Jesus’ last words were “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke is the evangelist who writes the most about Mary. And, he is the one who gives us, as Jesus’ last words, those which were among the first she taught him.
But, there is one glaring addition to the psalm Jesus had memorized from his youth! Jesus addresses God as “Father.” In the very first words recorded of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, the 12-year-old Jesus asks his parents, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business” (Lk 2:49). In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), Jesus speaks of God as “Father” 17 times. In his instructions to the disciples at the Last Supper (Jn 14-16), he speaks of God as “Father” 45 times. In his high-priestly prayer (John 17), he refers to God as “Father” six times. Even when he is suffering the cruel ignominy of the Cross, Jesus still speaks to God as his Father. The shame of the cross and the weight of the sins of the world cannot break the intimate relationship that Jesus has with the Father. He utters, as his very last words, a prayer of great confidence and trust: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).
When Peter drew the sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus made him put it back. He understood that it was only through the Cross that God’s love would be poured out on sinful humanity. He willingly gave his body into the hands of sinners. Now, on the Cross, he willingly gives his spirit into the hands of the Father. He knows that God is love and his love is stronger than man’s hatred. He knows that God is life and his life is stronger than death itself.
In not escaping death, but by dying with this Psalm 31:6 on his lips, Jesus shows us that even death itself is not an obstacle to communion with God. On the Cross, Jesus is taunted by his enemies, abandoned by his friends and in great physical and emotional distress. Yet, he is still in fellowship with the Father. Our communion with God is not determined by the circumstances of our lives, as dreadful and unpleasant as they may be. Rather, what makes for an uninterrupted communion with God is a heart trusting in God who brings good from evil and life from death.
Troubles and trials beset each of us. Like the blind trying to find the way, we hesitate and falter in our steps. But, when we pray each day as Jesus did, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” we find a sure shelter from life’s storms, a refuge from its tribulations and the lasting joy of communion with God.