Two men go to the temple to pray. One’s a Pharisee, one’s a tax collector. The Pharisee thanks God for making him such a great guy, and the tax collector confesses his sins. Guess which one goes home justified. (See Luke 18:9-14)
While the parable as it seems to read teaches a noble lesson, we miss something if we neglect to transport ourselves mentally into the context of the day. Imagine yourself listening to Jesus live, and he begins a little riff by saying, “A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into a bar ...”, or in this case the Temple. I think he will have you listening waiting for the punch line.
Then he gets to the Pharisee’s prayer. “God, I thank you that I’m not like everybody else. Look at all the good things I do. Why, I just can’t help giving myself a big hug for all my fastings and prayings and tithings and self-sacrificings.”
Jesus’ listeners would have been well-acquainted with such prayers because Jesus was giving a quirky parody of actual prayers offered in that day. The Talmud records such a prayer (Reference http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke18x9.htm):
“I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou has set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash [the house of study] and Thou has 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.” [b. Ber. 28b (Soncino 1: 172), quoted in Hear Then the Parables by Bernard Brandon Scott]
Here’s another one:
“R.. Judah said: One must utter three praises everyday: Praised (be the Lord) that He did not make me a heathen, for all the heathen are as nothing before Him; praised be He, that He did not make me a woman, for woman is not under obligation to fulfill the law; praised by He that He did not make me ... an uneducated man, for the uneducated man is not cautious to avoid sins.”
It’s not a stretch at all to believe that Jesus’ gentle humor found a few laughs, but more importantly Jesus was calling attention to a mindset that was all too prevalent among the religious sorts of the day. But it isn’t just a First Century mindset. It is one with which we must still wrestle. The human condition is still the human condition, and sometimes religious people are the most insufferable.
They can even be worse than KU fans.