Tag Archives: tax collectors

A Herd of Hookers

14 Dec

That’s what you do in a herd: you look out for each other.
~ Manny the mammoth

“Did he just say what I think he said?”macau-1

The radio was on as background noise – I can’t remember if I was at my desk or driving somewhere. NPR’s Frank Langfitt was talking about money laundering in Macau, and I wasn’t really paying too much attention.

But I perked up at this line: “I’m in the bottom of one of the casinos and trying to avoid a herd of hookers.” Wow – really? “Herd?” Of “hookers?”

The alliteration was catchy, but it sounded so demeaning and dehumanizing. These were individual women, after all, each with a family background and history, and each, no doubt, with a terribly sad tale to tell. The journalist’s flip use of a slang term for prostitute was bad enough; lumping the women all together as a nameless pack of animals was truly jarring.

I react similarly whenever I hear public health advocates speak of their immunization efforts – like Harvard physician Haider Javed Warraich:

Vaccines work when given to individuals, but they are most effective when administered to an entire population. That’s because vaccines confer “herd immunity” that disrupts the chain of infections, but only if enough people get the immunization.

I get the idea and the science behind it, but if public health officials want greater vaccination compliance, then I suggest they come up with a better image than “herd immunity.” Certainly immunization is effective and an important weapon in the public health arsenal, but I am not part of a herd, and neither are my children.

Instead, Warraich and his ilk notwithstanding, my kids are individual persons with individual physiologies, not to mention unique personalities, affinities, and dispositions. And this is true for everyone – something Somalian writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali pointed out with specific reference to Muslim women:

I didn’t realize until I came to the West that we actually are first and foremost not collectives. We are individuals. We are individual girls with our different characters, with our likes and dislikes. And before you assume the collective, assume the individual.

Yes, individuals first; members of a collective second. And, in any case, never simply part of a faceless mob.

Good_Shepherd_Catacomb_of_PriscillaHowever, there’s one area in which herd language is appropriate – and, oddly enough, it’s particularly associated with prostitutes. I mean, if there’s anything that deserves the moniker “herd of hookers,” it’s the church.

To begin with, the church actually does turn out to basically be a herd – remember the Good Shepherd? We all love the parable of the shepherd rescuing that lone sheep in the Gospel. It’s comforting and reassuring: I’m a witless beast, and the Divine herdsman has me safely ensconced across his broad shoulders.

Remember, though, that the shepherd eventually would’ve returned that sheep to the herd. Ultimately, it’s the herd that the Good Shepherd is entrusted to protect and nurture, and rescuing individual sheep is accomplished within that context.

Admittedly, it’s a delicate balance that Scripture strikes between images of God’s people as individuals and as a group. Paul gets at it very directly in his letters, especially when he talks about the body of Christ being made up of individual members with their distinctive differences. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (I Cor. 12.12). In other words, we’re all in it together as one body, but we’re also like discrete cells in an organism – each with distinct tasks to fulfill, with the vitality of the whole depending on everybody carrying out their assigned roles.

The ultimate destiny of the organism, however, is not dependent on each separate cell becauspeter-drowning2e it is already determined – predestined, you could say – that the organism is destined for paradise. “When the Holy Spirit blows, He does not create good individual Christians, individual ‘saints,’” writes Metropolitan John Zizioulas, “but an event of communion, which transforms everything the Spirit touches into a relational being.” The Catechism quotes Vatican II on the topic:

Believers who respond to God’s word and become members of Christ’s Body, become intimately united with him: “In that body the life of Christ is communicated to those who believe, and who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ in his Passion and glorification.”

Salvation, thus, is a matter of our incorporation into that body, and our petty faults and failings day to day are somewhat irrelevant as long as we persevere in that body. We know this because Jesus told us that the ones actually getting into heaven are the tax collectors and the prostitutes – biblical shorthand for notorious sinners. Think about such stories from the point of view of one of their main target audiences – the Pharisees and the self-righteous. They listened and critiqued, but they missed the obvious – and what was the obvious?

It’s this: Jesus was calling on them – and on us – to become more like Zacchaeus, and the Gospel’s sinful woman, and other noteworthy biblical transgressors in their lowliness. Far from giving the Pharisees a commission to lift sinners to their own level of respectability, the Lord gave them a subtle challenge to descend to the tax collectors’ and harlots’ level instead. That’s where humility and contrition can take a visceral, authentic form. That’s where true repentance and conversion can take place.

So, if Christianity is about conforming to Christ and getting to heaven, and if we ourselves really want to be on the way to heaven, then we too should think of ourselves as tax collectors and prostitutes – simply sinners, that is, just as Pope Francis declared himself after an interviewer asked him who he was:

I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.

This is no surprise, of course, but it’s important to remind ourselves that the process of becoming saints is a group effort – all the members of the body of Christ working through their stuff all at the same time – and it won’t exactly be a precisely choreographed affair. The Catechism puts it very explicitly:

All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time. Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation but still on the way to holiness.

SignofPeaceTo be sure, the crook and the harlot and all us sinners, once incorporated into the body of Christ, are still called to repentance. There’s no question that sin is awful in every respect, and part of embracing Christ and becoming part of the church is recognizing sin for what it is and reforming accordingly. Nevertheless, the crook and the prostitute have an advantage over the self-righteous, for profligate sinners have no illusions about their worthiness or sufficiency.

In any case, our job entails avoiding judgment of our fellow sinners, and then, more importantly, fully acknowledging our own corruption and inadequacy. Then, Jesus can do something with us – the sooner, the better.

Fortunately, thank God, we don’t have to go it alone – we have the Church herself, the saints, and even each other. Here’s the Catechism once more:

The unity of the Mystical Body produces and stimulates charity among the faithful: “From this it follows that if one member suffers anything, all the members suffer with him, and if one member is honored, all the members together rejoice.”

Out of many, one; one body, many members; born again as an individual, but born into a herd destined for glory. “Such is the race that seeks for him,” says the Psalmist, “that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.”

There’s plenty of mystery here to go around: Let’s dig in!


A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

Jesus Pulls a Fast One

24 Aug

So, there I am, at a weekday Mass, mind wandering as usual (“Focus, man, focus! You’re at the threshold of heaven, and, um,…what does that guy’s t-shirt say?”), and we get to the Gospel:

Jesus said to his disciples: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you…. If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church. If he refuses to listen even to the Church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”

Right, makes sense. There’s a progression here that both just and prudent – similar to what we do in our nursing program when there’s a complaint about a grade. It’s a subsidiarity thing: Start at the lowest level, closest to the source of the problem, and progress up the chain of command until…

Hey! Wait a doggone minute – hold on there! Did Jesus sneak one past us in that Gospel? The ol’ switcheroo perhaps? A little New Covenant flimflam?

I think so – see if you agree.

Bernardo_Strozzi_-_Christ_and_the_Samaritan_Woman_-_WGA21931The dodge comes in the last line: “…as you would a Gentile of a tax collector.” It’s no secret that this is biblical code for the shunned and disdained – the first century Jewish equivalent of an untouchable caste. In Matthew’s telling, Jesus instructs his followers to treat as outliers those of their number who persistently refuse correction – to be avoided, that is, and held in contempt. Like Gentiles. And tax collectors.

But remember how Jesus treats those guys? Daniel Harrington, S.J., noted this glaring disconnect in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:

The designation of the excommunicated member as a Gentile or a tax collector in verse 17 is odd in view of Jesus’ openness to both groups.

Take the Gentiles, for example, the “non-Jews” who were literally outliers with regards to the Covenant God established with his Chosen People. Sometimes in the Gospels, Jesus seems to come across as cruel and dismissive with regards to Gentiles. When the Syro-Phoenician woman pleads for her child, for instance, Jesus compares her kind to dogs. Elsewhere, he directly charges the disciples to avoid the Gentile riffraff, and to reserve their pearls of preaching for Israel’s lost sheep rather than the outsider swine.

Later, however, Jesus changes his tune. The parable of the Good Samaritan gives us a heads up about this shift in tone, for it’s the Samaritan – a Gentile – who ends up being the hero in the story, not the pious Jewish scholar or Pharisee. Then there’s the woman at the well, also a Gentile – and a woman at that, not to mention an unblushing adulteress. Yet, rather than snub her, as a first-century rabbi might’ve been expected to do, Jesus treats her with kindness, compassion, and graciousness – so much so that the Apostles are shocked at his unconventional liberality and comity.

And what about tax collectors? Consider Jesus’ dealings with Zaccheus, a revenue man and a crook – everybody knows it! Even so, JeBrugghen,_Hendrick_ter_-_The_Calling_of_St._Matthew_-_1621sus sees past the man’s record of petty larceny and greed, and recognizes a hungry soul – one that simply requires a bit of affirmation and divine affiliation in order to be pulled over to the side of those seeking righteousness.

Finally, there’s St. Matthew, of course, a tax collector whom Jesus appointed as an apostle – an apostle, for God’s sake! The guy’s supposed to be an outcast, and the Lord appoints him as an apostle!

Plus this tax collector/apostle goes on to write a Gospel, and it’s Matthew who records Jesus’ proscription regarding the unrepentant – that they be relegated to the same status as odious tax collectors – despite being a tax collector himself!

What’s the take home here? For a clue, we can return to Matthew 18. The weekday Mass reading that got me thinking about this stuff stopped at verse 20, but if you check your New Testament, you’ll see that what follows the discourse on church discipline is surprising – beginning with verse 21:

Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

In other words, sure, we have to have rules and consequences for breaking them. And, sure, we have to take more drastic measures when rule-breakers refuse to reform – drastic measures like the tax collector/Gentile treatment.

But you can’t fool me, Jesus. You want me to love them and forgive them all anyway – the whole tax collector and Gentile ilk, obstinate sinners all. Just like you loved them and forgave them all yourself.

Just like you love and forgive me.


A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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