Who plays 'tax collector' for us?
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good News for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 25, 1998
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Imagine sitting in the crowd listening to this man Jesus preach and tell stories! In a society that spelled out clear distinctions for religious behavior and the correct approach to pleasing God, it's no wonder Jesus was considered a revolutionary troublemaker. His parables and associations turned the world upside down. In the first reading, Sirach speaks of the compassion of God despite human sin. God promises justice for the poor and will not ignore the one who is wronged, the widow or the orphan. God will not delay in responding to the helpless, oppressed and abandoned: "The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds, and it will not rest until it reaches its goal" (Sirach 35:20). Sirach sets the stage for the parable in Luke's Gospel and the contrasting attitudes of the two men who go to the Temple to pray.
This story presents a stereotype of virtuous and sinful behavior. The Pharisee is not necessariIy an evil person. He is a faithful observer of the Mosaic regulations. He avoids sin and does more than the law requires. He follows a strict fast and tithes more than the legal requirement. He seems to express gratitude for his spiritual state, yet he catalogues his own virtues.
The tax collector keeps his distance, perhaps standing in the entrance of the Temple. He does not dare raise his eyes to heaven, beats his breast and prays, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" In the Middle Eastern world women usually used this gesture. Only when in a state of extreme grief or sorrow would a man beat his breast. It is possible that this gesture expresses an experience of conversion prompting him to seek forgiveness.
In Luke's Gospel, Jesus brings a message of forgiveness to the whole world. Luke speaks of forgiveness, grace and gratitude more often than the other evangelists. In Luke, God does not invite a select few but calls all to recognize their dependence on God who invites them to conversion and offers forgiveness. Luke sets the tone for this message from the beginning of his Gospel with the message of John the Baptist who "went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 3:3). This message is greeted with enthusiasm by many; this indeed is "Good News." Even then the crowds, the tax collectors and soldiers come to John asking what they must do to respond. The prophet's response tells them how to act toward one another: share what you have, be fair, don't abuse your power and authority (Luke 3:10-14).
Today's parable is told during Jesus' journey to Jerusalem during which he instructs the disciples and speaks of the suffering that will come (Luke 9:51-19:27). Jesus has continued to tell stories and have encounters that have defied accepted religious practices. He has made it clear to his disciples that the reign of God he is preaching about will happen as people recognize their relationship with God and with one another. All people are loved by God and invited to be a part of the reign of God.
In naming the sins that he has not committed the Pharisee links the tax collector with "sinners." "I am not like...even this tax collector" (Luke 18:12). He rightly professes his adherence to the law, but he also claims by his statement that he does not associate with this or any other sinner. By his pride the Pharisee not only separates himself from association with a sinner, but also his contempt for the tax collector separates him from recognizing this person as another of God's people. Yet this message that all the sons and daughters of God are brothers and sisters is what Jesus proclaims by his preaching, his parables, as well his relationships and encounters of healing or forgiveness.
The tax collector is aware that he has done nothing to deserve God's favor. Instead, conscious of his sinfulness, he displays dependence on God and opens himself to God's grace. Once again in the last words of the parable Luke employs a reversal to the surprise of his audience. The "Good News" is that the tax collector is the one who experiences justification because of his humility.
In my attempt to be a disciple of Jesus, I am left to wonder who is the tax collector for me?
Denise Simeone is director of the Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry.