Summary: Luke chapter 18: "Jesus told them another joke", we are told, "and He told this one to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and looked down on others." Did you hear the one about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who wandered into the
Now I know I’m being a little free with my translation here. I know most translations say that Jesus told them a 'parable' rather than a 'joke', but I'm not the first person to suggest that 'joke' is actually a very good translation.
# Did you here the one about the frog and the scorpion who were both trying to cross a river at the same time?
# Did you here the one about the Australian Prime Minister and Opposition Leader finding themselves alone in the same elevator?
# Did you hear the one about the Pharisee and the Tax-collector going into the temple at the same time to pray?
Certainly the story starts like a classic joke - depicting a scene where two natural antagonists find themselves in uncomfortably close proximity..
In each case we have a naturally comedic situation where two natural antagonists find themselves (accidentally) in uncomfortably close proximity.
Did you hear the one about the PM and Tony Abbot in the elevator together?
After a few seconds of self-conscious silence the PM decides she'll use the occasion to have a bit of a dig at her opponent. Knowing Mr Abbott to be a good Catholic she says, "you know your mate, the Pope? I’ve heard on very good authority that the man is a closet alcoholic - drinks like a fish!"
"Is that right?", says the Opposition leader calmly.
"In fact", she says, "I hear he's just a crazy depressive all round - impossible to get along with, mood swings, temper tantrums, the whole caboodle!"
"Is that right?", her opponent says, seemingly unflustered.
And just as the elevator reaches her floor she closes with, "the other thing I heard about your mate, the Pope, is that he's seriously considering giving away the Christian faith altogether and becoming an atheist like me!"
"Well", says the Opposition leader, "that would help explain some of the behaviour you've been referring to!"
OK. It's not a brilliant joke. Jesus' is better. But it does illustrate how, in order to 'get' a joke, you do need to know something about the characters involved. It also illustrates well how the laughs you get from a joke almost always come at somebody else's expense. And Jesus' joke in Luke 18 is no exception.
A Pharisee and a tax collector turn up at the temple at the same time to pray. There is no sarcastic exchange at the door, but the Pharisee can't resist making a back-handed reference to the tax-collector in his prayer. He prays out loud: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get. I am one of the good guys!"
OK, I added that last bit, but it is what he meant and, in truth, what he said and what he meant were essentially correct. He was one of the good guys!
As I say, to understand a joke you do need to understand the characters, and what you need to understand about the Pharisee (and about the Pharisees as a group) is that they were an exceptional group of human beings! Sure, they could be a bit stuffy and moralistic, but these guys were the honest upright citizens that the rest of the community depended on for social stability and moral leadership!
We get a skewed image of the Pharisees, I think, when we read about them only in the New Testament, as Jesus always seems to be arguing with them, but the other side of that coin is that they were the only religious persons who were actually there on the scene, such that Jesus could argue with them!
To grasp fully what I'm saying here we need to understand something of the way Jews had been dealing with the Roman occupation of Judea. For the people of Israel at the time of Jesus were a conquered people. They'd been a conquered people for generations - first conquered by the Babylonians some 600 years earlier, then by the Greeks and then by the Romans.
The Jews were a proud people with their own distinctive culture and faith, and yet they lived under Roman rule, and so the key religious question of the day was 'how were the people of God supposed to respond to that Roman rule?' And you can distinguish the different religious groups of that time by the way they responded to that question, and at the risk of being somewhat simplistic, let me suggest to you that there were four basic responses, corresponding roughly to four different religious groups in the Jewish society of the time.
The most popular response to Roman rule, both politically and religiously, was to fight back and hold a 'jihad' against the Romans! The group generally referred to as 'the Zealots' were the freedom fighters of the first century - resisting the Roman occupation, staging guerrilla attacks, and trying to resist and corrupt all things Roman. These people were yearning for independence and the chance to run their own theocratic nation-state once again.