A rabbi, a priest, and a preacher walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says “Is this some sort of joke?”
Many jokes follow the pattern of three people doing something. The first two establish a pattern as the set up and the third provides the contrast for the punch line. You see the same pattern in folk tales such as The Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Apparently this is an ancient formula.
A few days ago I listed to a sermon about the parable of the Good Samaritan recommended by Guy Kawasaki. In that message John Ortberg says that around the time of Christ, Jews often told stories involving a priest, a Levite, and an ordinary Israelite. The priest and the Levite would be the bad guys and the common Jew would be the hero. Jesus used this same formula but with a twist. His parable began with a priest and a Levite passing by a man who had been beaten by robbers and left for dead. The audience was all set for the contemporary equivalent of Joe the Plumber to be the hero. But instead, Jesus shocked the audience by making the hero a Samaritan.
Here’s the parable, taken from the English Standard Version.
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
The lawyer couldn’t bring himself to say “Samaritan” and so he answered Jesus indirectly by saying “The one who showed him mercy.”