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 Temple at the same time to pray?
This is a classic opening for a good joke, of course – depicting a scene where two natural antagonists find themselves in uncomfortably close proximity.
Did you hear the one about the frog and the scorpion who were trying to cross a river at the same time?
Did you hear the one about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton finding themselves stuck in the same elevator together?
Did you hear the one about Dr Keith Mascord walking into the Cathedral at the same time as … (actually, … no … let’s not go there, as there are no real antagonists in that saga).
What we have here in Luke chapter 18, at any rate, is a classic comedic situation where two natural antagonists find themselves, accidentally, in uncomfortably close proximity.
Did you hear the one about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton finding themselves stuck in an elevator together? The elevator not only jammed but then the cable broke and the elevator crashed after plummeting 13 floors!
Q: Who survived?
A: America (and the rest of humanity)
You’ll have to forgive me if that joke seems a little cruel for the pulpit but, in truth, Jesus’ jokes often had quite hard-hitting punchlines too, and this parable 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!
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 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 to be argued with!
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 should the people of God respond to their occupation by pagans?’ 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 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 in 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 destroy all things Roman. These people were yearning for independence and the chance to run their own theocratic nation-state once again. They were patriots, expressing their spiritual fervour in a way that we are sadly all too familiar with – through the waging of a holy war against their heathen oppressors.
A second and far less popular response to the occupation was to compromise and we might associate this response with the Sadducees – that Jewish religious group more associated with the administration of the Temple.
The Sadducees were aristocrats, and they did pretty well under the Roman occupation, so they weren’t going to make too much of a fuss about Roman culture or Roman political interference, or Greek philosophy for that matter, which quickly became integrated into their own religious thinking.
The Sadducees pop up occasionally in the New Testament but for the most part they are not on the scene because they are not hanging around with the type of everyday people that Jesus hung around with.
The other major Jewish religious group, that is even less obvious in the New Testament, is the monks. These were the group whose response to the Roman occupation was to run away!
Running away and hiding in the desert has always been a time-honoured religious response to dealing with the evils of the world, and it was a popular one back then too. The Essenes and those we associate with the Qumran community (of ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ fame) were the best known of those who made this response to the Roman occupation.
Some suggest that John the Baptist emerged from one of these monastic communities? If so, he’s the only desert-dwelling monk we meet in the Gospels, and this for the most obvious of reasons – the rest were in hiding
Now, as I say, I’m painting the first century religious scene with very broad brush-strokes but if we can envisage these different responses to the Romans occupation – fighting back, compromising, and running away – none of them are really going to be of much help to the average family that is trying to get on with the business of life and bring up their children in a godly way, in accordance with the religion of their forefathers.
The Zealots were busy planning an attack, the Sadducees were locked away safely in their lovely homes, and the Essenes were nowhere to be found. Who then was left to look after ordinary, struggling Jewish families? Who was going to pass on the traditions of the fathers and mothers of Israel to those who didn’t have the means or the wherewithal to run away and join a monastery?
Who was going to educate the children, provide religious teaching to ordinary farmers and labourers, and who was going to try to model a godly, restrained, and sober lifestyle in middle of an increasingly wild and hedonistic culture? Was anybody in first century Palestine willing to take up such a challenge? The answer that comes to us, loud and clear through the pages of the New Testament is that there was only one group of men who were willing to dedicate themselves to such a noble calling, and they were the Pharisees!’
The Pharisee was a man who stood for something. He believed in God and he believed in the unique calling of his people. He hated the pagan rule of the Romans just as much as everyone else, and yet he didn’t run away but stayed in there alongside his people. He was in it for the long haul!
Pharisees 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! And so they built their synagogues, they taught the Scriptures, and helped to maintain a distinctive spiritual identity amongst their people, so as to resist the inroads of Babylonian and Greek and Roman culture into their established way of life.
The Pharisees, consequently, were respected by everybody! If I might quote from the first century Jewish writer, Josephus:
“The Pharisees live thriftily, giving in to no luxury. For they follow what the Word in its authority determines and transmits as good. They believe that to keep what God wished to counsel is worth fighting for … those who live in the cities have witnessed to their virtue in devoting themselves to all the best in their words and way of life.” (Antiquities 18.12,15)
“The Sadducees persuade only the well-to-do and have no popular following. But the Pharisees have the masses as allies.” (Antiquities 13.298)
These were the people, humanly speaking, who ensured that the Jewish faith did not disappear when its temple had been destroyed generations earlier! Because they didn’t run away or resort to mindless violence, and because they didn’t compromise and sell out their faith, these people were the pillars upon which the faith and culture of Israel rested, and so when the Pharisee stands up to pray, “I thank thee God that I am not like other men” he is only telling the truth and most obviously when he compares himself to the wretched tax-collector.
I’m not going to give an equally long spiel about the tax-collector but I will say simply that he was someone who traded off other people’s misery!
To be a tax-collector in the first Century you needed to be greedy, first and foremost, and unpatriotic too because it involved working as an agent for the foreign occupying power. Being power-hungry and manipulative, while not absolutely essential to the role, would have also been advantageous.
And so when the Pharisee stands up and prays, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11) he is simply telling the truth. He was not like other men, and he was certainly not like that man!
It is good that the Gospel writer begins by assuring us that Jesus “told this joke to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on others” or we might fear that it was being angled towards us!
Of course we don’t look down on tax-collectors or their twenty-first century equivalents. We don’t look down on anybody, do we?
We socially-progressive, liberally-minded, open and inclusive religious folk – we certainly don’t despise tax-collectors or drug-addicts or even pedophiles (providing they keep a good distance away from us, and so long as we don’t stray too far from Dulwich Hill we’re not likely to bump into too many of those really horrible sorts of people anyway …)
The point, at any rate, is that we don’t look down on anyone, with the possible exception of climate-change deniers … and those who oppose gay marriage, and those blinkered sectarian religious fundamentalists who deny the equality of women and gay people – ‘OH! I thank you God that I am not like one of them!’
Sorry … where was I? We haven’t finished the joke yet!
“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:11-13)
What other prayer, we might ask, did the tax-collector have?
Biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias suggests that the key to getting Jesus’ joke in this case is to recognise that by this stage of the story, most of those listening to Jesus have already guessed the punch line.
Jesus has told a story about two natural antagonists – a Pharisee and a tax-collector who both go to pray at the same time – and knowing Jesus’ soft heart, Jesus’ hearers had by now anticipated His punch line: ‘I tell you the truth, not only the Pharisee had his prayers heard that day, but the tax-collector also!’ Not only the Pharisee, but also the tax collector.’
These guys know what Jesus was like. They know he made room for tax-collectors and prostitutes and all sorts of unsavoury people, and so they’ve guessed the punch line – ‘not only the Pharisee, but also the tax collector.’
And yet there’s a sting in the tail of this joke, for the punch line is not the one that they expected. Jesus rather concludes His story by saying that ‘the tax collector went to his home justified and not the Pharisee!’ The tax collector and NOT the Pharisee!
The tax collector went home ‘justified’! It’s worth noting here that this is the only time in the Gospels that the Greek, dikiosuner (justified) is ever used.
We know this word from elsewhere in the New Testament. It is the word that is used so frequently by St Paul – being justified by faith, justified before God, etc.
It’s a very significant word in the New Testament that speaks of God’s grace towards the undeserving sinner, but it is only used once in the gospels, and it is here – referring to this tax collector in the temple. He went home justified – a complete man, whole before God, heard and loved and accepted and forgiven. The Pharisee, on the other hand, ironically, goes home still carrying the same problems that he started out with that day. His prayer has not registered with God! Like some email that gets caught in the Divine Spam filter, his prayer does not get through!
I heard of a preacher who 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”.
If only! There is a Pharisee in all of us, and the only hope for us Pharisees is to recognise that the prayer of the tax collector – ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner’ – is the only prayer we have too.