Three Men in the Temple

The great danger of meditation and other techniques for the inner life: it often ends up as dialogue with oneself. In Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Pharisee entered the Temple of God and did nothing more than dialogue with himself. The Greek text says, πρὸς ἑαυτὸν ταῦτα προσηύχετο: the most direct translation is “to himself he thus prayed.” The RSV translation says, “with himself” – a slightly more moderate image, but the Greek text does say “to himself”! The tax collector entered not perhaps knowing what he was looking for. Perhaps like Zacchaeus last week; he had no agenda. Confronted with God’s holiness in the Temple he poured out his contrition. “God be merciful to me a sinner.” No long speech, no self-exaltation or self-justification! He entered the Temple of God and there found God, not his own ego. He too, was a son of Abraham!

It reminds me of one of my favourite psalms, Psalm 73, a psalm of Asaph. It is a psalm that tells of a severe life-crisis, a crisis of faith, a crisis that comes from looking at the way the world functions!

The psalm opens conventionally enough:

Truly God is good to the upright,
    to those who are pure in heart.

But immediately we are thrown into the speaker’s life crisis:

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
    my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant;
    I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

He confesses that he envied the way the arrogant and wicked lived. He goes on to describe the comfortable lives of the wicked:

For they have no pain;
    their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
    they are not plagued like other people.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
    violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness;
    their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
    loftily they threaten oppression.

He could have been describing the Pharisee in the parable Jesus spoke. The psalmist is greatly confused.

All in vain I have kept my heart clean
    and washed my hands in innocence.
For all day long I have been plagued,
    and am punished every morning.

He is brutally honest with God, and in a sense he is challenging his own faith. Is it in vain, after all? Should he have lived his life like the wicked after all? No, no, he couldn’t think this way. Why?

If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,”
    I would have been untrue to the generation of your children.

This is a powerful statement by Asaph. He is tempted to turn away from his righteous living and become like the wicked. But he is not alone; he has a responsibility to the generations of God’s children. He is accountable! And that’s a universe away from the values of today’s society, where people owe nothing to anyone! They’re accountable only to themselves – if even that. We are self-absorbed; Asaph was absorbed in his concern for others and what his actions or decisions would do for the “generations of God’s children! Biblical morality is always about the “other” and the impact of our actions on the “other”.

But this sense of accountability does not lessen his burden, it makes it worse:

But when I thought how to understand this,
    it seemed to me a wearisome task…


until I went into the sanctuary of God;
    then I perceived their end.

He went into the Temple and there he got the answer to his confusion. He saw “their end” – how God will deal with the wicked. He doesn’t tell us any more than that. I visualise him standing in the Temple and pouring out his confusion and spiritual turmoil to God. And somehow God reassured his faith. The experience transformed him.

Two men went into the Temple in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. One was full of himself, but he lost himself in the flood of egotistical and judgmental words that came from his mouth. The other man was in crisis; he was empty; he entered the Temple with no expectations and begged for mercy. He left a new man. Not only did he find himself, in the Temple he was found by God. Just as Zacchaeus was found by Christ.

We also come to the Temple every Sunday morning, and sometimes on other days as well. We come like Asaph, like the tax collector, perhaps even like the Pharisee. We have questions, we come looking for forgiveness; sometimes we even come to satisfy our egos. But if we come with open minds and hearts, we leave changed men and women.

P.S. I chose not to include the recording of this sermon as I was distracted a couple times during the sermon by activity in the congregation and it affected my delivery.

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