Since last September, we’ve been taking a look at the Psalms. Even before the Bible was put together, the Psalms were there. For us, they are a collection of prayers. For musicians, they are a collection of songs. But, whether a prayer or a song, the psalms are a way for us to talk to God. The Psalms teach us to pray and help us to pray. “There’s a Psalm for that!” was the catchy phrase that got this whole conversation started.
Sometimes we need a psalm because we don’t have the words to express what we’re feeling. This is particularly true when we have some strong emotion. It could be joy or love. It could be anger or sorrow. Either way, we sometimes feel that our emotions are not worthy of God or we’re just not sure how to put it into words. We need the Psalms because they capture such a wide range of emotion and are nothing but honest with their words. They remind us that we’re not alone in our experiences, in our feelings, or in our thoughts about God.
Other times we need a Psalm because we’re not sure what to say. This could be true because faith in God is a new experience. In other words, someone may have just come into a relationship with God and, like all relationships, would like to communicate. They just aren’t sure what kind of things they’re supposed to say. New relationships take some figuring out. Old relationships do too. After everything has been said, what’s left to say? When the relationship becomes too comfortable or familiar how do you reconnect? The Psalms help us find the words.
Psalms also help us find the words that Jesus said. Along the way, we’ve paired each Psalm with a story from Jesus’ life and imagined how they might have fit in. We don’t have to pretend that Jesus prayed some of these prayers or that he likely knew all of them. The Psalms are a way for us to connect with the heart and mind of Jesus, our risen Lord and Savior. Jesus can seem very distant or like someone from another world, but the Psalms helps us connect with Jesus on a very human and personal level. When we pray the Psalms we are praying with Jesus.
So, we’ve listened to the Psalms that God’s people have used to begin worship. We’ve listened to the more well-known Psalms. We even listened to the Psalms of betrayal, rejection, and abandonment. Now, as we finish this series of the Psalms, we’ll listen to the prayers that finish the collection of Psalms in the Bible. One phrase ties all of these final Psalms together: Praise the Lord! Each of them begins and ends with that phrase: Praise the Lord! They are all Psalms of praise. They are Psalms of hands raised up. They are Psalms of hearts lifted up. They are Psalms of resurrection.
Praise comes when God enters our lives and gives new life. During this Easter season we remember the most astounding and amazing and surprising act of salvation that God performed in our lives: raising Jesus Christ from the grave. We praise him for it. We praise God for resurrecting us, for giving us reason to raise our hands and lift up our hearts. We praise God for saving us from our old life and blessing us with a new one. So, during these next few weeks we’ll listen to Psalms that help us find ways to praise God. We’ll look to lift up certain things in our life and put away others. We’ll look to resurrect in our own life the kind of lives that God wants for us. So, let’s get to it.
When we think about praising God one of the first things we need to resurrect is theology. Theology? Really? What does theology have to do with praising God? We’ve all seen big, dusty theology books and it’s hardly the kind of reading that lifts our hearts to the Lord or raises our hands with shouts of joy. I understand. But before you get out your pen and start working on your grocery list, maybe it will be easier to understand our need to resurrect theology if we understand what we need to put away.
In order to resurrect theology, we have to put down our ideology. I know, it’s not anymore exciting, but they rhyme so they’re easy to remember. Ideology is just a smart sounding word that refers to the ideas that people hold to. An ideology is a set of beliefs that determine how a person or group of people acts. Usually when someone uses the word ideology, they are referring to some beliefs that a group of people hold to very tightly. Ideology is used to describe radical groups on the outside of society; people like Democrats or Republicans. You know it’s only kind of a joke because you’ve seen politicians argue lately. You’ve heard how defensive they get and how destructive the process has become. That’s ideology at work.
Zaccheus would have been a man of ideology. As the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus would have held to a certain set of ideas about the way the world works and how important he is to that process. His beliefs would have told him that his collection of taxes is crucial to the world around him. His beliefs would have told him that more is always better. His beliefs would have told him that it’s o.k. to take a little off the top as a reward for his hard work. His beliefs would have told him that being harsh would keep people in line. His beliefs promoted him to chief over all of the tax collectors and made him a lot of money. He was rich. Obviously, Zacchaeus’ ideology would not make him many friends.
Then, one day, Jesus comes walking through town. Zacchaeus is curious. Maybe it was Jesus’ following that caught Zacchaeus’ attention. Maybe Zacchaeus thought that crowd meant that Jesus had a lot of money and was not yet properly taxed. Or, maybe it was something different. Maybe Zacchaeus saw something different in Jesus. Maybe he saw something in Jesus that he felt like he was missing, despite his power and his wealth. Whatever Zacchaeus saw, it sent him running ahead of the crowd. Because he was short, it sent him climbing up a sycamore tree like a child.
Maybe Jesus saw all of this scrambling about, because when he got to the tree and saw Zacchaeus he said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus was happy to oblige. Although, nobody else was. The crowd who was standing there was not very happy at all. Of all the people who were walking around and listening to Jesus and following him, he picks Zacchaeus?! Jesus is going to eat with the chief liar, the supreme cheater, the ruler of theft?! This is not fair!
Zacchaeus must have heard all of the grumbling as he stood there making plans with Jesus. Perhaps he thinks that Jesus will hear about all of his shady deals and unfair treatment of people. Perhaps he thought Jesus would change his mind. So, he blurts out, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” I wonder how much thought Zacchaeus gave to those words. They don’t sound like they’d come out of an ideology of a chief tax collector and a rich one at that.
There are some very generous rich people, but few if any would give have their possessions away while their still living and to the poor at that. Not many tax collectors are going to admit their fraud, especially if that’s how they got rich in the first place. What Zacchaeus has promised to do makes no sense for him, unless something has changed. And, something has. “Salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Because of Jesus stayed at his house, salvation came to his house. All of the scrambling that Zacchaeus did, down the road and up the tree, meant that he had found faith. Zacchaeus believed that he saw in this man walking down the road the face of God.
This faith that Zacchaeus found, this experience with Jesus, changed something in him. He would no longer lie or cheat or steal. Instead, he would be honest and fair and generous. It might not make him a very good tax collector, but he would be a very son of Abraham, a very good child of God. What we see happening here is a shift in thinking. A change of mind is taking place for Zacchaeus. This experience with Jesus washed away his ideology and planted in him seeds of theology.
The problem with ideology is that it is so often defensive. It’s one persons ideas against another’s. We’ve seen enough political debates and new conferences to understand this. One side shouts out about why they are the more honest party and why their path is more true. All of the shouting and arguing is just about trying to be the ones who are right. It doesn’t get us anywhere because there is nothing practical proposed. It’s just ideas.
Theology, on the other hand, is compassionate. It’s not about surrounding yourself with ideas and beliefs that keep you safe and secure. Theology is about entering into the lives of the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the blind, those who are bowed down and helping them. Theology is about seeking out the foreigners, the widows and the orphans and being faithful to them. These are the things that God is praised for in Psalm 146. This is what we find Jesus doing in the gospels. This is what Zacchaeus promises to do after Jesus comes to his house.
Another problem with ideology is that it’s destructive. As I thought about this, I thought about the places we live. Our homes, our apartments. All of them need to be maintained. Now, if we were to just stand around and argue about whose idea for maintaining the house is best or right, the house isn’t going to be maintained. All the while we’re arguing about whose ideology is best, things are falling apart. Again, ideology is destructive because we spend so much time arguing about being right that nothing gets done.
Theology, on the other hand, is creative. Theology is about making things. Theology is about being creative in executing justice, giving food, setting free, opening eyes, lifting up, watching over, and upholding. These are the things that God is praised for in Psalm 146. These are the things that Jesus did in his life. This is what Zacchaeus promises to do after Jesus comes to his house.
The biggest problem with ideology is that it’s so close to idolatry. Idolatry is worshipping something or someone other than God. Too often in life the idol that distracts us is ourselves. As we consider, ideology, it just so happens that we believe things that make life easier for us and more profitable for us. It just so happens that we judge as bad those things that we don’t like. We condemn behaviors more harshly that we don’t have to struggle with. Ideology is very convenient and self-centered. It’s all about being safe and secure, about protecting our wealth and power.
In telling the story of Zacchaeus, Luke wants us to know that all of the power and all of the wealth in the world are not going to save us. Zacchaeus didn’t find salvation until he was willing to let it all go and give his life to Jesus. Salvation came to his house as a gift.
That means the greatest gift of theology is that we get to know God. Psalm 146 is filled with creative and compassionate acts, but the greatest revelation is that it is God who is doing them. It is the Lord our God who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them. It is the Lord who executes justice for the oppressed, the Lord who gives food to the hungry, the Lord who sets the prisoners free, who opens the eyes of the blind, who lifts up those who are bowed down. The Lord watches over the foreigner; the Lord upholds the way of the orphan and the widow.
Theology is creative and compassionate because God is creative and compassionate. Theology sounds like a heady, academic word, but its really about our relationship with God. If we want to live a resurrected life with our risen Savior, if we want to raise our hands and lift our hearts, if we want salvation to come to our house, it starts by letting go of ideology and resurrecting theology. It’s about trusting God enough to be creative and compassionate people in the world just as Jesus was and just as Zacchaeus came to be. It’s believing that no idea of our own can keep us safe and secure, but that God is the source of our salvation.
Eventually, Jesus would leave Zacchaeus’ house. I imagine Zacchaeus caught up in a moment of praise as he watched him go; hands raised, heart lifted up, joining the chorus of praise from those who have been saved by Jesus. How might Zacchaeus rejoice? What words would he sing? I bet there was a Psalm for that. “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God…The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!” Amen.