The Great Joke

It’s a familiar parable—the Pharisee and the Tax Collector—but in its familiarity, many of us have missed a twist that Jesus intended. The story reads almost like a joke: a Pharisee and a tax collector walk into a temple. The Pharisee stands before the altar and prays, with palms up to Heaven and raised eyes,

“God, thank you that I’m so righteous. You have blessed me and made me holy in your eyes.” Here he pauses to shoot a glance over at his money-grubbing friend, “Thank you that I am not like those wicked men who would steal the coin of others.” And then he sweeps up his robe and leaves, with a self-assured smirk of contempt.

Meanwhile, the tax collector hasn’t moved, but has stood off to the side, with shaking hands and downcast eyes. Finally, he gathers his courage, strikes his chest, and breaks his silence with a trembling voice, “God, have mercy on me, for I am an unclean sinner.” He has no other words, for no other words will cover his guilt and shame.

As Jesus wraps up his story, he offers those wonderful words, “I tell you that (the tax collector), rather than (the Pharisee), went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Everybody listening looks around knowingly, as if they had heard the punch line to some great and insightful joke at the expense of another.

All those listening to Jesus tell this story for the first time surely shot glances over at the religious elite and thought to themselves, “What a self-righteous group of men.” After all, Jesus was targeting them; those who were confident of their own righteousness were those who inspired the story. Even today, we hear sermons preached on the topic, and go out thinking, “What a wicked Pharisee; God, thank you that I’m not a Pharisee.”

Therein lays the grand joke. By judging the Pharisee, we have made ourselves into the very thing we are disdaining. We condemn the Pharisee for pride, and exalt ourselves over him for our humility. No doubt the Story-Teller knew this, although many of his followers surely did not. Even today, many are left laughing at the joke, but they have missed the punch line.

Nowadays, acceptance is the catch-phrase. We no longer live in a culture that intentionally separates clean and unclean—although we certainly do in more subtle ways. Indeed, everywhere we turn in our enlightened Western culture, we hear preached a doctrine of “love” and acceptance.

However, this message only extends as far as those who will show acceptance to others. We are called to love, but only if the people we are loving have some modicum of acceptability; we love people who love people. Judge no man—of course—unless the happen to be Westborough Baptists, Klan members, or jihadists. We offer a culture of acceptance, and any man who does not accept it, do not accept them. We have become utterly intolerant of the intolerant.

The dichotomy here is clear; the moment we condemn the Pharisee, we condemn ourselves with as much certainty as the Pharisee did when he offered judgment to his tax-collecting fellow. Loving those who are humble is easy; loving those who want no love (or feel they don’t need any) is divinely difficult—it is the great joke of the holy Gospel. We are called to love the unlovable, even (especially) those who express no need or desire for it.

Reverend Richard Wurmbrand, was the founder of the organization Voice of the Martyrs. In 1966, he spoke in front of Congress about the horrors of Communism, as well as showing his scars he had acquired during his years in imprisonment for his faith; the stories he told detail some of the most horrific and terrible crimes against humanity ever committed.  He was perhaps one of the most outspoken religious opponents of the Communist movement, specifically the Soviet regime, for the atrocities they carried out against Christians and against mankind. And yet, despite his opposition, he still had the strength to tell his congregation, “When Communism falls, it is the duty of every Christian to shelter and defend the Communists fleeing from the mobs and unjust persecution.”

This is from a man who witnessed things that would make men think they were no longer living, but were already amongst the torments of Hell. This is the love of Jesus, hanging on the Cross and gasping out, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” We are to love our enemies, even in how we judge.

The tax-collector is a fallen man—as is the Pharisee. Men can see the tax collector’s spiritual poverty, but only the eyes of Christ can see the Pharisee’s. When Jesus preached, “If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out,”  he did not intend for us to go about blind, but to receive his eyes in exchange—those eyes that see clearly and love even the hateful.

  • Brian

    This is awesome. So true!