"A Wahoo and a Hokie walked into a bar: . . . " "How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?" That's all we need to hear to get us smiling at each other in anticipation of the punch line, sure that the story will be another witty play on the stereotypes.
Imagine Jesus the storyteller beginning with a similar rhythm: "A Pharisee and a tax collector walked into the temple to pray." The listeners begin to smile, and sure enough, the characters are just what they expected. The Pharisee lives in strict accordance with the Law and knows that he has God's approval. As he prays, he looks around to see who else might be admiring him and spies that no-good tax collector hiding in a corner. The tax collector doesn't see him; his head is bowed in misery and he stays far from the altar.
Jesus doesn't even need to dream up some original dialogue. Both his characters are from the tradition of Psalm 119. Here's the Pharisee: "I look at the faithless with disgust, because they do not keep thy commands. Consider how I love thy precepts!" (Ps 119:158). And the tax collector: "I have gone astray like a lost sheep: seek thy servant..." (Ps.119:176). So far, no surprises.
What's the punch line? Here it comes: "The tax collector went down to his house justified rather than the other." The repentant sinner who expressed his need for God had his prayer answered. The righteous one who didn't ask for anything was left just as he was. Jesus is giving God's response to the mixed messages of Psalm 119. Like a humble lover, God waits for us to ask, to seek, to knock at the door. In the words of Hosea, "Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord."