Luke 18 - Jesus told them another joke.
I know your translation says ’parable’ rather than ’joke’, but ’joke’ is not a bad translation. We don’t tell parables nowadays, we tell jokes, and they’re pretty similar - both have punch lines, both can help you to see life in a different way, both can give you a good laugh.
So Jesus told them another joke, and he told this joke to those who ’trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others’.
’Did you hear the one about the Pharisee and the tax-collector’, he said, ’who both happened to turn up to the temple at the same time to pray?’
Lots of jokes start this way, with natural protagonists finding themselves accidentally at the same location.
Did you hear the one about when Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat went into a men’s room in Gaza at the same time to relieve themselves?
Did you hear the one about the two Irish Protestant teenage boys who find themselves stuck in a lift with the Catholic bishop of Limerick?
Did you hear the one about the Pharisee and the tax collector who turned up to the temple at the same time to pray? They are natural protagonists - classic figures for a good joke.
Incidentally, did you hear the one about the two Irish Protestant teenage boys who find themselves stuck in a lift with the Catholic bishop of Limerick?
One of the boys ribs the other one and then says to the bishop ’well Father, I’ve heard tell that your Pope has taken up smoking recently. It’s a dirty habit Father. Have you heard that?’
’No. I can’t say I have’ says the bishop, apparently undisturbed.
Undeterred, the boy says ’I’ve also heard that he’s been hitting the bottle a little lately - making friends with the old Jack Daniels, so I’m told. Is that right, Father?’
’Well, that’s the first I’ve heard of it’, says the bishop.
’You know Father’, the boy makes one final frustrated attempt, I’ve heard your Pope has got a few women hidden away up there inside the Vatican. Is that right Father?’
’Well, I wouldn’t have believed it’ says the Bishop. ’It’s the first I’ve heard of it, but I’m glad to be kept informed. Thank you.’
The other boy decides that his friend is making no progress in annoying the old cleric, so he says ’you know Father, I’ve heard that the Pope is becoming an Anglican.’
’Well, so your friend has been telling me’ replies the bishop.
Back to the joke in Luke 18: the Pharisee and the tax collector turn up at the temple at the same time to pray. They manage to miss each other at the door. They make no sarcastic exchange when they notice each other, but the Pharisee can’t resist making a back-handed reference to the tax-collector in his prayer: ’God, I thank you that I am not like other men: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.’ (Vs.11)
The tax collector’s prayer conversely makes no reference to the Pharisee, but is simple, and perhaps somewhat pathetic. ’He would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ’God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’(vs.13)
I don’t know what you know about Pharisees and tax-collectors, but I suspect that for many of us it’s a bit like your knowledge of cowboys and Indians.
I don’t know if I learnt much American history from the early Westerns I watched as a kid, but one thing I did learn -cowboys were the good guys and Indians were the bad guys.
It’s similar to what you learn about the 2nd World War by watching old war movies. The first thing you learn is that the Germans are all bad guys and that the allies are all good guys. The second thing you learn is that the Germans are really bad shots.
I think that those of us who have had Sunday School upbringings might have inherited a similar view of Pharisees and tax collectors. The Pharisees are the bad guys, and the tax collectors were the persecuted and much misunderstood friends and companions of Jesus.
Of course when those who fought in the wars see the old war movies, they often comment that they didn’t experience things quite that way. And I suspect that if we were living in New Testament times, we would not see Pharisees and tax collectors quite that way either.
For starters, there is no way that any of us would be able to think of a tax collector as a ’good guy’. He was not a poor and persecuted guy, like some despised and pathetic drug addict. He was a wealthy and money-grabbing traitor, more like a drug pusher.
When the Romans took over a town, they held an auction and they leased out the position of tax collector to the highest bidder. It was a lucrative business. Taxes were fixed by law at about 5% of the value of goods, but the tax collector charged his commission on top of this. He had to charge enough to cover his lease, and on top of that to make a profit, but the truth was he could charge anything he liked. Whatever his tax estimate was, that was law, and he had the Roman military to back him up.
It’s true, we do see numerous tax collectors in the New Testament - Zacchaeus was the senior taxation officer in Jericho, Levi was a less senior taxman in Capernaum. It’s true that both come to be friends of Jesus, but this says a lot about Jesus! And both men change of course.
To the average Israelite, tax collectors were the dead flesh of society, such as you might hope would be removed by the surgical hand of God in judgement. Why?
Because they were greedy money-grabbing bastards.
Because they were traitors to their own people.
Because they were perpetually ’unclean’ because they hung around with other low-life.
This third reason might not cut much slack with us, but the first two are still entirely relevant.
I’ve know a number of drug-pushers in my time, and I find these people hard to like. I certainly don’t like what they do. We are probably happy enough to have these people come to church, and we might even take time to minister to them (if we have to), but they’re not the sort of persons we want to invite back to our homes for lunch after church, because we don’t want our children to meet them. And frankly we don’t want to be seen with these people because we do not want other people to associate us with them.
And so the tax collector stands at a distance, beats his breast, and says ’God have mercy on me, a sinner’. I suppose it was the only prayer he had.
Contrast this guy with the Pharisee - a veritable pillar of society if ever there was one. He too is in the temple. He too prays. And he begins his prayer with a word of thanksgiving that must be considered to be no more than honest: ’I thank thee God that I am not like other men.’ For the Pharisee was not like other men.
The Pharisee was a man with a proud heritage:
After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C., Israelite faith took on a new dimension. Up to that point, all worship had centred around the sacrificial system in the temple. When the temple was destroyed, rather than let their worship die out, godly men and women met together and developed a pattern of worship that centred not around sacrifice, but around the book of the law - our Old Testament.
Highly significant in this process were the ’scribes’ (like Ezra), and the ’Hasidim’ (the ’loyal ones’) and their spiritual descendants - the Pharisees, who cherished and reinterpreted the law of God for their own day. These people built synagogues, taught the Scriptures, and tried to maintain a distinctive Bibical spiritual identity amongst their people, so as to resist the inroads of Babyonian and Greek and Roman culture into their way of life.
You know, if you had been a social and political commentator at the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., you might well have predicted that the Babylonian victory in Israel would have spelt the end of the nation of the Jews forever, and certainly the death of their religion. ’How could they sing the Lord’s song is a strange land’ you might have thought (to paraphrase the Psalm)? How could the identity and religion of the Hebrew people possibly be maintained beyond 587, after the destruction of their place of worship, and with their priests and leaders scattered over so many foreign lands?
And yet, by the time we reach the time of the New Testament, Hebrew religion is thriving. Another temple has been built. The Jews are still worshipping the God of their forefathers, and they are still living a distinctive way of life. Their young children are being taught the Scriptures and eventually passing these teachings on to their children! Who was responsible, humanly speaking, for setting up this system that kept the faith of Israel going over the generations after conquest? It was, more than any other figure on the New Testament scene, the Pharisee who should be given credit for keeping Biblical faith alive.
Early Jewish history contains remarkable tales of courage and determination on the part of these people - the Pharisees - who preferred to bear their necks to the Roman troops rather than have their temple defiled with the Roman eagle.
They were a deeply pious people, who prayed publicly twice per day and spent the rest of their time studying the Scriptures. Paul was a Pharisee of course, as were other disciples who came to Jesus. O.K. - they might have been a bit stuffy at times, but these were men of principle. More than that, they were the only group within Israel that responded to the foreign occupation of their country by doing what Jesus recommended - by being in the world but not of it.
The Roman occupation created a problem. How do you function as a people of God when you are in the middle of a godless culture? Sound familiar?
The most popular response was to fight back. The zealots started insurrections. As with the IRA resisting British rule of Ireland, in the long term they achieved nothing but bloodshed. Jesus warns his followers against them.
Another path was that of ’escape’. The Essenes did that - they ran off into the desert. Some people still do. This is not a popular response nowadays
Of course one response we’ve already seen - the response of the tax collector to Roman occupation - ’make the most of it’. If you can’t beat them, join them. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Who was it that stuck it out in society and tried to bring the word of God into the homes of ordinary believing Jewish men and women? The Pharisee did, and no one else. He chose to be ’in the world but not of it’. He had the guts to stick it out in an occupied society, and the determination to want to make it work.
So when the Pharisee prays ’I thank you God that I am not like other men - especially like this tax collector’ is he doing any more than simply stating the truth. Wouldn’t we say the same?
I’ve developed a great deal of respect for the Pharisee over the years, in case you couldn’t tell. I frankly wish we had more Pharisees in this community, and in this congregation. They were men of principle, men of the Bible, men of tradition, of culture, of standing, of integrity.
I’ve met some of these men down at the RSL club. You can see them on TV each ANZAC day - chests filled with medals from all the wars they’ve fought through. Why? Because they believed that certain things were worth fighting for, and even laying down your life for. OK, these guys can be a bit stuffy and ’old-fashioned’. They’re still not very good with Japanese people they meet, and they don’t think much of the couple who live together next door but have never got married, but you’ve got to respect these guys because they chose to dedicate their lives to something that was bigger than themselves, and bigger that their own bank balance, which is more than you can say for the tax collector.
We modern church-going tax-collector-types - we’re much smarter than our ancestors. We’ve discovered the art of appearing to be magnanimous while being selfish. It’s one of the great benefits of having children of course. You can say things like ’I’m just trying to look after my family’ and ’I must try to provide for my children’, which sound so much better than ’I’m just trying to feather my own nest’, even though it doesn’t add up to anything more.
So many of us have fallen into that trap, seduced by the gods of our age. The Pharisee though, he is not like other men, and he gives thanks to God for that. ’O God, I thank thee that I am not like other men: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector’. While the tax collector, standing afar off, prays the only prayer he has: ’God have mercy on me, a sinner.’
As a joke, this parable from Jesus is not one designed to generate a lot of laughs. But it does have a good punch line. And the Biblical scholar Jeremias suggested that one of the keys to ’getting the joke’ in this particular parable is to recognise that by this stage of the story, most of Jesus’ original hearers would have already guessed the punch line. They are expecting Jesus to say: ’I tell you the truth, not only the Pharisee had his prayers heard that day, but also the tax-collector!’ Not only the Pharisee, but also the tax collector.
And yet this is not the punch line to the parable. Jesus rather concludes that ’the tax collector went to his home justified and not the Pharisee!’ The tax collector and NOT the Pharisee.
What does that mean? How do we come to terms with that? The tax collector went home ’justified’, and it’s worth noting that this is the only time in the gospels that the Greek word ’dikiosuner’ (justified) is ever used - that word which appears so frequently in some of the letters of Paul - being justified by faith, justified before God, etc. - that very significant word in the New Testament that speaks of God’s grace towards the undeserving sinner, it is used once in the gospels, and it is here - referring to the tax collector in the temple. He went home justified - a complete man, clean before God, and ready to be accepted back into the god-fearing community on full and equal terms.
I heard of a preacher who once ended his sermon on this parable with a prayer that began
"I thank thee God that we are not like the Pharisee in this parable". That is not true. We are like the Pharisee. There is indeed a Pharisee in all of us. And the only hope for the Pharisee in us, is to recognise that the prayer of the tax collector - ’God have mercy on me, a sinner’ - is the only prayer we have too.
Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, October 27th, 2001