“A rabbi and a priest walk into a bar.” Ever hear a story begin like that? If you have, you are probably waiting for a laugh line about now. I wonder what Jesus’ listeners were thinking when he opened his act with, “a rabbi and a tax collector walk into the temple.” I wonder if they were looking for a laugh line too. So let’s put the story into the vernacular and maybe hear what the listeners heard and how they heard it. You’ll find the original version in Luke 18:9-14.
A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into the temple.
The Pharisee goes right up to God and says, “Hey, Lord! Look at me! Aren’t I a great guy? I don’t steal, I don’t cheat, I don’t run around on my wife. I do all the stuff I’m supposed to do. I fast and I pray. I’m not like that IRS agent over there, I pay tithes instead of taking them. I can’t wait to get up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror, and every day I can’t resist giving myself a great big squeeze.”
God says nothing because there is nothing to say.
The tax collector waits in the back. “What a mess I am! God, forgive my debts!”
So God forgives his debts.
Maybe there’s not a laugh line here, but I do wonder if the people listening to this little story didn’t get a little giggle from the Pharisee’s prayer. In the Talmud is a prayer that sounds very much like that of the parable’s Pharisee:
I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou hast set my portion with those who sit in the seat of learning and Thou hast not set my portion with those who sit in street corners, for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labor and they labor, but I labor and receive a reward and they labor and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction. (Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 28b)
Personally, I get a little suspicious whenever someone attempts a Bernie Madoff and tells me how good he is. The parable’s Pharisee saw himself as pretty hot stuff and likely expended a great deal of effort letting his neighbors know about it. Living next door to a guy who makes himself the subject of every conversation would be either an exercise in patience or a personal daily comedy show, depending on one’s mood that morning, but frankly, that lowly tax collector would have been a better guy to share the back fence with.
The point is, beware of people who like to talk about themselves and all their wonderful talents, and be just as cautious around those who look down on others and share their disgust with everyone else in the sandbox. In the words of the parable, they despise others (verse 9). Those are toxic people, and you deserve better than that.