“An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar…”
If you grew up in the UK or the Republic of Ireland then you’re probably familiar with the Englishman, Irishman and Scotsmen jokes – and chances are you’ll be able to tell from the accent of the person telling the story which character is going to end up as the butt of the joke.
Most of the time the English joke teller will be poking fun at the Irish and the Irish and Scottish comedians will aim 99% of their jokes at the English. It is a standard form of joke that most of us would recognise.
Jesus opens his story today with two characters that his listeners would have been extremely familiar with.
“A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into the temple”
From that one first line most of the people listening have already guessed the punchline. Tax collectors were the butt of most people’s jokes – the NLT throws in an extra word to make sure we get the point – “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector”.
The punchline is obvious – don’t be like the tax collector. They’ve heard it a hundred times from a hundred different teachers. Pharisees = Very, very good, Tax Collectors = Very, very bad.
Except that this is Jesus and he has a habit of saying the unexpected. So unexpected, in fact, that the story ends with Jesus telling his audience that the tax collector was the one who left the temple right with God.
Jesus has laid a trap for the people to walk into. At the beginning of our reading Luke tells us that this story is aimed at people who looked down their noses at others.
When we read the passage today we expect the Pharisee to behave in the way that he does. We’ve built up an image of the Pharisees as a proud, nitpicking bunch but that isn’t how the Jewish people would necessarily have thought of them. A Pharisee in Jesus’ time was expected to observe the law carefully and would have been held in high regard. To Jesus’ listeners the self righteousness of the Pharisee would have been a shock from which they would still be recovering when Jesus hit them with the tax collector punchline.
It is easy to ridicule the crowds who are listening to Jesus but I think it is even easier to slip into doing the same thing ourselves. When someone is different to me, maybe in looks, or lifestyle or beliefs it is really easy for me to judge them, to assume I’m better than they are.
The tax collector in the story is not concerned with the faith of those around him. He is simply focused on his own relationship with God. And he isn’t just beating himself up; having a realistic awareness of his own failings he is able to come humbly before God to ask for forgiveness.
And that is what Jesus wants us to get – our faith should not be self-centred or self- important. It should be like the faith of the tax collector – aware of our own weaknesses and failings, not thinking of ourselves more highly than others and completely aware of our dependence on God.
The Prayer Stations that followed this talk were: