We meet the 1st and 3rd Thursdays at St. Gertrude's Ministry Center
(6214 N. Glenwood), beginning at 8:00 p.m. Folks are welcome to join us at anytime.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Tax Collectors and Sinners

There exists in Christian circles a tendency to relegate those antagonistic to Jesus’ ministry to the religious elite, and maybe the Romans too, on occasion. The religious elite are generally subdivided into one of three categories: Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes who, for the present purpose, will be clumsily lumped into one group (though I’m sure they’d resent it) as the Old Covenant Elite (OCE). I would like to gently assert that there was another group that could be categorized as “religious elite” not because the previously established group would accept them as such, but because their attitudes and behaviors so often paralleled that of the former that it would be incongruous to consider this last group as entirely distinct. The group that I am referring to is the followers of Jesus. Another motley crew that will be morphed into one disorderly entity; the New Covenant Elite (NCE).

It can be amusing to take advantage of my position as a reader and a recipient of divine revelation that these groups only dreamt of to analyze and pick at the flaws of my predecessors. It can be challenging to see ways in which I’ve resurrected these flaws in my own body. And though I’ve often pondered the parallels I share with each group, I seldom have looked to see the parallels they share with one another.
Both the OCE and the NCE had been graced with a knowledge of God that they were meant to share, welcoming all who were willing to share in the covenant. And both, instead of receiving this grace as a call to serve took it as an opportunity to elevate themselves.

The OCE and the NCE each felt that they were the ones who had the key to the kingdom. The first because of their adherence to the law, the second because of their allegiance with Jesus. Just as the OCE frequently critiques Jesus and derides his disciples, the NCE dismisses children, and gentiles. And both groups were quick to shelter their sin beneath the protective covering of attacks against tax collectors. Tax collectors were viewed as traitors to the ethics of the Jewish faith, abusers of the poor, objects of scorn—objects, or at best diminished men—in the eyes of their fellow Jews.

One of the more popular films of Jesus’ life, The Greatest Story Ever Told, contains a poignant scene that emphasizes the struggle of the disciples to join with Jesus in extending a hand of friendship to the tax collectors. Peter has a volatile reaction to Matthew being beckoned to follow. When Jesus is dining with Matthew and his fellow “tax collectors and sinners,” Peter stands at a distance but not so far that he is unable to hear Jesus share with the community gathered around him the parable of the Prodigal Son. As Jesus finishes speaking his eyes lock on Peter and Peter knows that he is the second son who has and is rejecting his brother even as his father welcomes him, with open arms and a feast.

Lately, I have been thinking about whom, in the present, represents these various groups. I like to think that I am among those who could be considered followers of Christ; a rag tag bunch that frequently fails to fully understand his teaching, but who have been captivated by his words and deeds and want nothing more than to be near him. At our best, we endeavor to love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with our God. We make bumbling attempts to emulate our Lord, and when we fail, accept his chastisement and repent. Our worst, I think, is when we forget that the kingdom is not ours to define, but to reveal. That is, our worst is when we attempt to screen others from Jesus’ healing touch, or when we fail to see the spirit of Christ that is already in them. When we assume that we have exclusive rights to the Way. As a community who takes pride in identifying with the outcast, it is easy to assume that we are beyond this. After all, part of what unifies us is our desire to advocate for the poor, imprisoned and marginalized.

Then I think, "Who are the tax collectors of our day with whom we are reluctant to dine?" Who are those that seem to be dictated by an ethic that either rejects or distorts the social teachings of Jesus? Who are those that we might perceive as abusing the poor? I frequently find myself being dismissive toward those who have made a value of amassing wealth, or who are ignorant of or indifferent toward the consequences of their lifestyle choices, those who profit from the exploitation of workers and the environment. Surely, Jesus would not sit down with these? Surely, he does not honor the divine spark that resides in their spirit? Surely the Spirit of God that came to us when Jesus departed is the only one who can judge their hearts, just as that same Spirit judges mine.

When confronted for inviting himself to the home of Zaccheus, another tax collector, Jesus tells this story:

He said, “Two men went into the temple courtyard to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed, ‘God, I thank you that I'm not like other people! I'm not a robber or a dishonest person. I haven't committed adultery. I'm not even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my entire income.' “But the tax collector was standing at a distance. He wouldn't even look up to heaven. Instead, he became very upset, and he said, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ “I can guarantee that this tax collector went home with God's approval, but the Pharisee didn't. Everyone who honors himself will be humbled, but the person who humbles himself will be honored” (Luke 18:9-14).

In 1979 a similar story appeared in the Aug 10 edition of the National Catholic Reporter:

“Two men went into a church to pray, one a radical, the other a conservative. The radical looked straight at the altar, thinking, ‘Thank you, God, that I’m not like that conservative over there: color television, new car, charge accounts, taxes for nuclear weapons. I subscribe to the Catholic Worker, NCR, Sojourners and Commonweal. I fast every Friday. I refuse to pay war taxes. I only have a black-and-white television. I was once a political prisoner. I read Hans Kung.’ The other man, however, could hardly bear to look at the altar. He hung his head and prayed, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’” (Jim Forest).

Pharisee or follower of Christ, radical or ridiculous girl; lately I have been feeling convicted by Jesus’ admonition, “Healthy people don't need a doctor; those who are sick do. 13 Learn what this means: ‘I want mercy, not sacrifices.' I've come to call sinners, not people who think they have God's approval” (Matt 9:12-13). And my heart murmurs, “Mercy, mercy,” as my lips form the words, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say that word, and I shall be healed.”

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