Jesus, the Pope and the Tax Collector

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 30
October 23, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Want to get on God's good side? Here are two strategies, and you won't believe what really works!

Most Americans understand that paying taxes is their civic duty. They may not like it, but they do it. They take every tax credit, tax break and deduction they can find, and walk through every available loophole. But, down deep, they know that, like death, there's no avoiding taxes.

This is a serious matter. Tax evasion and the failure to pay one's taxes is a crime - witness Al Capone, Willie Nelson, Martha Stewart, Pete Rose, Leona Helmsley, et al.1 This is probably true in most countries. But in Italy, according to one observer, "tax evasion is the country's most popular sport after soccer, [and] an estimated more than [euro]100 billion a year is lost to tax evasion. ... Officials also estimate that Italy's underground economy ... is worth about [euro]200 billion a year, or about 11% of [Italy's] gross domestic product (GDP)."2

Perhaps this is why His Holiness Pope Francis recently praised Italy's much-aligned tax collectors, noting "that while they will never win popularity contests, they were vital for the functioning of a fair society." He was speaking to an audience of Italy's version of IRS agents. He argued that "everyone had to pay their fair share of taxes, particularly the wealthy, so that the weakest members of society were not 'crushed by the most powerful' people."3

The pontiff also reminded the revenue agents "that while they may not be showered with affection on earth, they have a patron saint in heaven. St. Matthew the Apostle, he said, was a publican or tax collector before he decided to follow Jesus.4

When the pope praised tax collectors, he was of course relying upon precedent - that being the highest of all possible authorities, Jesus Christ himself.

In today's reading, Jesus tells a story about two men, a tax man and a wealthy and self-righteous churchgoer, a Pharisee. He had high praise for the former and contempt for the latter.

Since we have a gospel reading that involves a man who earns the adulation of not only the pope, but our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ - this is a story worth examining.

God's good side

The first thing we notice - perhaps with disappointment - is that this reading is not about taxes and tax collectors at all! It is rather about the best way to get on God's good side.

Jesus expressed this somewhat more theologically: "I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

We get on God's good side by humbly confessing that we're sinners in need of God's redemptive mercy .

The Pharisee could not say this because he didn't believe it. And, truth be told, we also might gag on what's called "The Sinner's Prayer," because we don't believe it either! After all, this wealthy religious person did not lie ! He claims he was grateful. He was. It was not a lie, and it is universally acknowledged that gratitude is a good thing. He expresses his gratitude to God: "God, I thank you." So far so good.

Then he messed up. "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers ...." Here he probably crossed the line, but he might've been okay if he'd stopped right there. But no, he had to keep going, pushing his self-righteous foot past the lips and gums and deep into his gargantuan throat, and in so doing expressing pride dressed up as gratitude . "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: ... or even like this tax-collector." In other words, humble-bragging . Here's an example from social media: "I saw a homeless man in front of Walmart and I was only getting 1 thing Bc I didn't have much money, but instead I bought a case of water & gave it to the man. I gave him the last of my money & walked away crying Bc I just felt God praising me 4 putting others before myself."5

Pride, not humility

The Pharisee can't stop and leave well enough alone. After mentioning "thieves, rogues, adulterers," he adds, "or even like this tax-collector" - with perhaps a nod to the wretched penitent standing yon in the shadows. This is pride, not gratitude, in its most egregious form.

This guy forgot that God loves thieves, rogues, adulterers and tax collectors! Jesus said to the thief on the cross that the two of them would meet up that very day in Paradise.6 The rogue , also known as Saul, persecuted and terrified many Christians of the early church. He heartily approved of the execution of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the church.7 But it was worse. Saul literally entered the houses of believers and "dragged both men and women" out into the streets and threw them in prison.8 Then he saw the light and became Christianity's first and foremost theologian. For adulterers , recall Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, a woman who had had five husbands and was currently cohabiting with a man who was not her husband. Or think of the woman - probably a prostitute - who unfortunately was caught in flagrante delicto and tossed at the feet of Jesus by some Pharisees not unlike the one described in today's reading. Although the Law of Moses prescribed stoning, Jesus famously suggested that "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."9

Of this group itemized by our noble and righteous Pharisee, perhaps the tax collector was the lowest of them all. But, like the pope speaking to Italy's revenue agents, Jesus praised this tax collector. Within days, he would meet another tax man, Zacchaeus, a tax agent operating out of an office in Jericho. After spotting him in a ridiculous position in a sycamore tree, Jesus asks him to climb down and suggests dinner at his place. The result is the redemption of the tax man, who returned fourfold to all those he had cheated.10 It is in this story that Jesus reveals his mission. Explaining why he'd had dinner at chez Zacchaeus, he said, "For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost."

So the Pharisee had it all wrong: Those on his no-fly list were actually closer to God than he was ! They had a better chance of getting on God's good side (justification) than he did. They knew who they were. They were sinners - no getting around it. Yet God loved them. In fact, Jesus once said to a group of "chief priests and elders" that "tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you "11 (emphasis added).

The Pharisee could not wrap his head around this. Whaaat ? He saw this ginormous gulf between himself and these worms of society consisting of thieves, rogues, adulterers and tax collectors. What he failed to understand was that the gulf between himself and God was far greater than between him and these vermin losers. It would seem, in other words, that the Pharisee was beyond redemption - unless, unless - he could walk to the publican, stand beside him and bow with him as a sinner in the presence of God.


The second surprise is the Pharisee's assumption that his value to the Almighty rested in his religious activities . His bold and aggressive arrogance is breath-taking. The Bible says that he was one of those "who trusted in themselves." The problem with ego-centric knowledge is that the ego is notorious for its overestimation of assets and underestimation of deficits. The Bible puts it this way: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is extremely sick; Who can understand it fully and know its secret motives?12

The Pharisee was of this tribe. He trusted in himself. This was his first problem. The second was that he thought logically to a wrong conclusion. The logic went this way:

The second premise is faulty. Jesus was talking to a group of those "who trusted in themselves t hat they were righteous " (emphasis added). They were not righteous - at least not because they tithed and fasted. Fasting and tithing can be valuable religious endeavors, but not when they are used as leverage to pry oneself into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus said that only the oil of humility can loosen the hinges of celestial gates: "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

This is illustrated by the Pharisee's third problem. He belonged to a cohort of those who "regarded others with contempt." Here, the Bible seems to suggest that the Pharisee not only had little respect for thieves, rogues, adulterers and tax collectors, but that he regarded others - read everyone ! - as beneath his notice!

Somehow, this fellow had found a way to climb a pedestal and assume a perched position. How can anyone who lives in a cloud of contempt possibly believe the doors of the kingdom are going to swing open automatically as those of a kosher supermarket.

The tax collector had it right. He was a sinner. He humbled himself and asked for mercy.

He was destined for great things, for, as Jesus said, "all who humble themselves will be exalted."


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