Tax Collectors and Preachers

I mostly enjoyed my weekend at the abbey. I loved the remoteness and hard beauty of the land. I loved the chanting of the Psalms at Vespers and Compline. But the preaching, not so much.

I woke up early on Sunday morning and figured I’d check out mass since I dig ritual and it had been years since I had sat through a Catholic Mass. I’m good with all of the up and down, bow and straighten, genuflect and sign of the cross stuff. I even do some of it because I like the way it feels. But when it came time for the homily (sermon), I rankled.

The priest chose to talk about a story in Luke which concerned a pharisee and a tax collector and the differences in how the two pray. As a lead-in, he had told an amusing anecdote about overhearing part of a cell phone conversation and then proceeded to teach that context is important to understanding what you hear. So, to better understand the parable, he said, it is important to know that, between the pharisee and tax collector, the latter was, in principle, the lesser of two individuals because the tax collector exploits his own people. (How this is not also true of pharisee in Jesus’ time and place, I’m not clear.)

Now, if you’ve studied the socialist perspective on history and theology, you’ll immediately know why I rankled. “Tax Collector” is pretty much a euphemism for “Money-Grubbing Jew”. And, boy, if we are going to talk about “telling the whole story”, then let’s talk about how, historically, nobody wanted the job of tax collector (since these folks were hated by the people) and it was typically Jews (trying to avoid being crucified, sold into slavery, or exiled from wherever they were allowed to live at the moment and trying to preserve some of the self-rule autonomy promised to them by said rulers) who settled for roles in the ruler’s administration or were able to set up businesses in the merchant class (thanks to their culturally valued education in math, reading, writing). Once this less-than-perfect relationship was set up, the ruling class would send the Jews out to do the dirty work and then encourage the working class (who, in the time of Luke’s writing, would have been the poor, mostly illiterate sots ruled by the Roman Empire–basically all of Europe, Western Asia, North Africa, and down into Egypt) to focus their resentment on the Jews, deflecting it away from themselves.

We don’t talk much about anti-semitism in America these days. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still lurk in our psyches. In fact, I’d venture to say that it is more buried than our racism because at least with our racial bigotry we know better than to mouth off with racial slurs or act overtly racist (at least in public). However, I still hear friends–people I otherwise respect–use phrases like “Jew someone down” or make reference to a person’s Jewish heritage when the topic of their greediness comes up (as if that really explained anything). My jaw drops open every time.

Why do we Gentiles so often assume that Jews are characteristically manipulative, duplicitous, and greedy? I’ve heard it said (or left unspoken) that they do seem to be preoccupied with money so therefore their character must be the reason for the behavior? But this is not so different than saying that people on welfare are inherently lazy. Or that black people have poor self-control. Where do we get these ideas?

Too often a group of people is blamed and persecuted for a behavior that they were forced into by circumstance. That is the essence of the machine of oppression of any sort. (You can see the same dynamic with women in the Old Testament: They are often forced to react to circumstances that could have been prevented by their husbands or kings (i.e., the actors with real power) and then, when less than ideal circumstances yield less than ideal results, they unfairly suffer the blame.) By any of us presuming, as the pharisee did in the parable, “[we are] not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:10), we set ourselves apart from outsiders, from the parable’s tax collector who “stood at a distance” in prayer.

Now, to their credit, Luke (or rather the two individuals that are historically considered to be the author of Luke) and Jesus, who he is paraphrasing, point out that those who think themselves above others will get the smack down and it is the truly humble who will come out alright in the end. But until we openly talk–especially in our churches, temples, and mosques–about how we (or rather our ancestors from whom our bigotry was passed down) could easily have behaved the same in the unsavory individual’s position in order to survive, and how it is each individual’s responsibility to overcome the tendency to burden a vulnerable group with the carrying of our own unsavory tendencies, then these little errors of omission, like the one in Sunday’s service, take with the left hand what insight they give with the right.

That priest taught more by counterexample than by his words. And I learned that, until the Church’s day of self-reckoning, I’m likely better off standing “at a distance”, away from the temple, doing my most sincerely to be humble and protecting the awe and grace I naturally experience in my conversation with the divine from any who would propose to co-opt it from me by way of insufficient mediations.



8 thoughts on “Tax Collectors and Preachers

  1. homilies

    I agree but with a certain caveat: We have to acknowledge the limitation of narrative to convey a revelation or teaching. All fo the things you say about the relationship to Jews in western culture is very true. I came across a quote from a German Marxist once in which he says “anti-semitism is a fool’s socialism”, reflecting what you said about the tendency to deflect agression from the upper-class to the Jewish community.

    I guess, though, that I sometimes feel I can only go so far in pulling apart the metaphors in a religious teaching with lots of social analysis. On the one hand I feel its totally necessary to do the genealogy so as not to repeat the same mistakes but at the same time I find myself knowing that I must acknowledge the text for the underlying message it is seeking to convey or I don’t really have anything. I think that Amina Wadud puts this across with much more eloquence in her book called, I think, “Woman and the Quran”.

    Anyway, here ends the rant! 🙂 peace!

    • Re: homilies

      I can only go so far in pulling apart the metaphors in a religious teaching with lots of social analysis.

      Yes, I’m really asking the parable to do double duty here. And perhaps unfairly so since the priest was clearly interested in keeping it simple and light. Liberation theology was not on the agenda.

      My concern is that subtle errors of omission do their damage through accretion. At what point does someone, especially someone in a position of authority need to say, hey, we really need to talk about what’s not being said here. For me, personally, the Church passed that point a few centuries ago. (Although I gratefully acknowledge the apologies of Vatican II and hope that it promises that mass (if you’ll excuse the play on words 😉 consciousness can progress–albeit very very slowly.)

      I probably would have been more open to the plain message of the parable had the priest not opened up the “context is important” can of worms. I’m an intellectual, a liberal, and a great believer that honoring the dignity of each human being is foundational to any serious spiritual work.

      Many of my friends–atheists and humanists–would gently but surely laugh at my expectations that the Church serve as anything more than as a tool of socio-political policing. But I idealistically believe that religious traditions have some serious merit, especially when it comes to helping individuals integrate their experiences of the numinous and preventing the over-identification with those experiences (such as the development of a system of ideas that are simply a reflection of one’s own complexes). And so I keep after them, hoping to shuck off the wrappings and hold onto the kernels. But my idea of “shucking” involves a fair bit of examining the husks before they can be advisably discarded.

      but at the same time I find myself knowing that I must acknowledge the text for the underlying message it is seeking to convey or I don’t really have anything

      You have a good point. And I need to take a moment to acknowledge the essence of the story and see what I might surprise myself by discovering if I let it sink further into me. Certainly, my own self-satisfaction runs amok from time to time. And I mustn’t discount wisdom simply because it hasn’t been spoken in my chosen language.

      I look forward to checking out your book recommendation.


  2. By popular demand: Did Somebody Say Jesus? Pt 1

    Oooh, yeah. The lack of scholarship on the part of religious leaders can be stunning. Raised Catholic, I have met only one priest in my lifetime who lived up to the collar, in my opinion. The rest have all been really stupid – intellectually and spiritually.

    Now, I don’t have a degree in religious studies like some people I know – ahem – but I have done a fair amount of amateur study on the rise of the Jesus cult. When Luke was writing, which was probably somewhere between 40 – 60 after the events supposedly took place, wasn’t he writing for a Greek/Roman audience?

    Jesus and his followers started their ministry in the Jewish world and spoke to socio-political issues within the Jewish culture in Palestine, and Mark was probably writing for other Jews, but the author known as Luke was writing for Gentiles – converts from the Greco/Roman culture as opposed to converts from Judaism.

    Context is everything. At the time the parable would have been told by Jesus, the tax collector would have been a representative of a puppet government supported by Rome. Actually, the tax collector may not have been Jewish at all, or at least not a good Jew, and he would have been taking money from Jews to support a government that did not reflect/represent the people.

    Fast forward a generation or two to when the author of the Gospel According to Luke, and the significance of this parable changes a bit because his needs and the needs of the ministry have shifted a bit. Luke’s audience wouldn’t have have much respect for a pharisee, since Pharisees were elders of a religion that the greco/roman pagans didn’t really know or care about. Everybody hates tax collectors, though, no matter what their religion is. (Interestingly, the tax collector hates himself in the parable! Luke is suggesting that Jesus endorses self-loathing, which is the part of the story that I think really deserves exploration, but I digress…)

    Honestly, though, that I don’t know that Jews were the main tax collectors in the Roman world. There was a small diaspora of Jews in Rome at the time of Jesus (and at the time of the rise of populatrity in His death cult), but despite being seen as weirdos, the Jews were mostly tolerated. Pagan Rome had so many gods, they didn’t care – what’s one more? After the Roman world was converted to Christianity was when, to my understanding, antisemitism got a strong foothold. Christian converts from gentile cultures wanted to distinguish themselves from culturally “jewish” christians for various reasons, none the least of which was circumcision. (It’s easier to win converts if you don’t insist on genital alterations upon conversion, it seems.) Of course, there was also ignorance about their own Hero’s Jewishness due to illiteracy, misinterpretations & bad translations, political infighting, and physical distance between sects. Through this, a schism occured that set the stage for antisemitism. As more converts to Christianity came from previously pagan areas and the self-appointed church fathers from these areas started choosing books and declaring doctrine, well – history is written by the victors. Jews became so reviled that they weren’t even welcome in most European cities, much less put in charge of money. Really, from the dark ages through the Renaissance, Jews were only allowed to live in certain enclaves and had to fend for themselves. As it turned out, pawn broking (and by extension, loan sharking) became avenues to financial freedom for many Jews because usuary was deemed “unsuitable” for good Christians. Christians had to go to Jewish districts in times of financial stress which served to promote jealousy and enflame antisemitic feeling. (This is really the period when Jews beome connected to money and greediness, because it is through these professions that they seemed to profit upon other’s misfortune. Shylock, anyone?)

    • By popular demand: Did Somebody Say Jesus? Pt 2

      That kind of mistrust keeps both sides apart, and both sides interested in promoting their “own” interests. That’s where we get those ideas. That’s where they start, I think. If we only trust what we’ve heard about “other”, we can easily find evidence to support the going theory.

      The why’s and wherefore’s don’t make it okay to be a biased ignoramus, which is why it’s good for folks like you to step up and be counted – especially in our multi-pluralistic society.

      I wonder though…forgive me, because I think you bring up a very good point and something that is absolutely worthy of discussion…but what did the priest say to give you the impression that he equated tax collector with dirty, money grubbing Jew? Clearly, something set off your radar. Or what if…just a thought…your bias towards scholarship prevents you from embracing a completely shallow interpretation of this parable? Maybe the priest owes the IRS a ton, and just hates taxes? Or the government? (I say that only as food for thought, just as devil’s advocate – I trust your gut on this situation.)

      I’m glad that the abbey was mostly awesome and rejuvinating! Although I do think it sucks that one moron can wreck a perfectly lovely religious experience.

      • Re: By popular demand: Did Somebody Say Jesus? Pt 2

        what did the priest say to give you the impression that he equated tax collector with dirty, money grubbing Jew?

        Perhaps my own bias towards scholarship, as you deftly pointed out. As I mentioned to , I do think that errors of omission do harm through accretion. And, while this particular tax collector may not have been a Jew (as you enlightened me–thanks!), I think it is important that when voices of authority deign to teach morality, they better make sure their own closets are clean. In the case of the Catholic Church, it’s got a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.

        We can take anti-semitism out of the picture and I’d still have the same beef. My point being: don’t judge people for behaviors driven by circumstance without exploring the circumstances that put them there. (Come to think of it that’s why I like movies like Syriana and Magnolia.) By leaving out the exegesis as “too complicated” for the common person’s intelligence or attention span, we pander and don’t really challenge anyone’s moral development.

        That’s my rant. Thanks for spurring me on! 😉

    • Re: By popular demand: Did Somebody Say Jesus? Pt 1

      Holy schlmoly! This is fantastic information. And, to be clear, I don’t have anything close to a degree in religious studies. I just am angling towards one. So, your insight is like honey to me. I’m going to have to read this over a few times to digest it all.

      And, that *is* an interesting point about promoting self-loathing. One of the dissertation ideas that is rolling around in my head is a study of low self-esteem and how it is dealt with (or not dealt with) in religious texts.

      Thanks again for the comment!

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