Summary: A Pharisee and a tax-collector bump into eachother at the temple. This looks like a sitcom! ...
“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.’
Now, I suspect that your translation probably says ‘parable’ rather than ‘joke’, but I think ‘joke’ is actually a very good translation.
We don’t tell parables any more. We tell jokes, and they’re much the same thing. Jokes and parables tend to be stories that look at life in a different way, and they can both make you wince as well as give you a good laugh.
Understood in this way, you’ll appreciate that Jesus was renowned for His jokes, especially jokes like this one, that had a punch line aimed at those 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, Jesus said, who both happened to turn up to the temple at the same time to pray?’
This is a classic opening for a joke, with two natural antagonists finding themselves accidentally at the same location.
* Did you hear the one about President Bush and the President of Iran finding themselves in to the same men’s room at the same time?
* Did you hear the one about Prime Minister John Howard and Labor leader Kevin Rudd accidentally bumping into each other at the same strip club?
Sorry, perhaps that one’s a bit too sensitive. I’ll go back to the first one:
Did you hear the one about when, during his recent visit to the US, the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad coincidentally found himself in the same men’s room as US President, George W. Bush?
While the two were quietly relieving themselves at the urinal, George found that he couldn’t resist the opportunity to have a dig at his Iranian counterpart:
He says, “I hear that Ayatollah of yours doesn’t mind a bit of a drink! I know he’s publicly opposed to alcohol, but I hear that in private he hit’s the bottle pretty hard!” The President of Iran laugh it off and says, “Oh, is that right?”
George tries again, “You know, I also hear that he has quite a few women with him. In addition to however many wives he has, I hear he’s got quite a harem - all hush, hush, of course!” The Iranian says, “Is that what you hear?”
George thinks he’ll try one final dig: “You know, I hear that your Ayatollah is thinking of becoming a Christian - becoming like one of us! Had you heard that?” The Iranian says, “Well, from what you’ve been telling me, that seems to be exactly what’s happening!”
Back to the joke in Luke 18: the Pharisee and the 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 a good bloke’ .
Actually, I added that last bit. He didn’t actually say out loud, “I am a good bloke”, but he meant it, and, after all, that’s the point: he was a good bloke
Now I know that the Pharisees have gained a bad reputation over the years, and chiefly because of the way they are portrayed by Jesus in the Bible but, while it’s easy for us to pass judgement at a distance, we need to appreciate the fact that Jesus’ critique makes sense within a framework of understanding where the Pharisees were the moral, social and spiritual authorities of their day. And they didn’t get to that position of authority simply through good luck!
Pharisees were quite amazing people. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. They were pillars of their community. They were the moral and spiritual guardians of their people. And, OK, they might have been a bit stiff - wowsers, to use the modern parlance (as indeed we do see them repeatedly interfering in Jesus’ parties, concerned that He’s eating and/or drinking too much and always partying with the wrong sort of people) but, in their defence, they were people who stood for something!
They stood for purity. They stood for faithfulness. They stood for strong churches and strong families, and they were people who were willing to do whatever was necessary to see that their community held together!
If you’re not familiar with the history of Pharisaism, they had a proud history:
After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C., Israel as a nation went into meltdown! Not only were the people of Israel displaced and shipped off to Iraq as refugees, but from a faith perspective, they no longer had anywhere to worship! Their temple had been destroyed!