Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Second Look: Jesus and the Sinful Tax Collectors

In my previous post, I drew on the Gospel passages about Jesus and his dealings with social pariahs, like tax collectors who enriched themselves by extorting more than was due, to explain that no sinner was simply welcomed at the table by Jesus. The Lord said he "came to call (invite) not the righeous, but sinners" (Mt 9:13). Or again, "The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost" (Lk 19:10). A lesson followed that was applicable to the current agitation by LGBT persons for "full equality" in The Episcopal Church/Anglican Communion---meaning ordaining LGBTs and blessing their same-sex unions. It concluded that because sex outside Christian marriage between a man and a woman has always been regarded as a sin, the traditional position that LGBTs had to be celibate in order to be priests was only applying what Jesus required of the tax collector Matthew before he could become His disciple: to give up his sinful behavior, repent of his ways, and desire sincerely to follow Him.

In looking through the Web at how other peoples' sermons have dealt with the tax collector stories, I am struck by the fact that the lessons drawn have to do with all kinds of sinners, and not just sexually active LGBT persons. Here, indeed, is a list of social misfits and outcasts that appears in one such sermon:
Let's consider who we faithful, righteous Christians tend to look down on:

Punk rockers, surely, and
Teenagers with body piercings and gothic clothing,
Pregnant teenagers,
Divorced men and women,
Gamblers and junkies,
Emigrants and illegal aliens,
Those who are of a different religion,
Poor, smelly homeless people who don't exactly belong in our churches and might steal our purses if given have a chance,
and the list goes on.
Without even referring to LGBTs, this sermon goes on to make the same two points that I did. First, that the humble tax collector genuinely repented and begged forgiveness for his sins (I am leaving out all the references in the original):
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' " (Lk18:13)

Notice the tax collector's posture. Jesus describes three kinds of body language before he voices the tax collector's prayer:

Standing at a distance. He doesn't feel worthy to draw close to God or the temple.
Not raising his eyes to heaven, but standing with head level or bowed, as a sign of his sense of guilt.
Beating his breast. Though we don't see many instances of this in scripture is a sign of mourning, Josephus, a Pharisee who lived a few decades after Jesus, described David's mourning for his son Absalom in this way: "David ... wept for his son, and beat his breast, tearing [the hair of] his head, tormenting himself all manner of ways...."
The tax collector's prayer is remarkable and short. First, he addresses God, just as the Pharisee had done.

Next, instead of telling God all the good things about himself, he describes himself as a sinner, hamartolos, "pertaining to behavior or activity that does not measure up to standard moral or cultic expectations, 'sinner.' " Notice that he makes no excuses for his behavior, offers no mitigating circumstances. He is confessing his sinfulness before God and taking full responsibility for it.

Finally, he asks for mercy, Greek hilaskomai, "to cause to be favorably inclined or disposed, 'propitiate, conciliate.' When used in the passive, of one addressed in prayer, to act as one who has been conciliated, 'be propitiated, be merciful or gracious.' " I was expecting to see the common Greek word eleeo, "to be greatly concerned about someone in need, 'have compassion/mercy/pity on or for someone.' " The difference between the two words is significant. Hilaskomai calls for forgiveness from one who has been wronged, while eleeo asks for compassion and pity for one in tragic circumstances.

For the tax collector to ask for forgiveness and restoration of his relationship with God is a bold and faith-filled act for a man so despised by his society. He is obviously humble and repentant of his sins, but his faith has made him bold to ask for something that he has no right to expect -- forgiveness and restoration before God.
And second, that those who are confident in their own righteousness should guard against shunning the sinner, for they may turn out to be the ones who are wrong in the sight of God:
Having contrasted the Pharisee's self-righteous and disdainful piety with the tax collector's sincere and faith-filled penitence, Jesus pronounces judgment:

"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God." (Lk18:14a)
The word translated "justified" is Greek dikaioo, "to render a favorable verdict, 'justify, vindicate, treat as just' ... 'to be found in the right, be free of charges.' "

Can you imagine the impact Jesus' parable had on the Pharisees present? They must have been livid with anger. How about the crowd? They were amazed, wondering, pondering. But the prostitutes and tax collectors, thieves and adulterers in the audience may have been weeping, for Jesus had declared that it was possible for them to be saved, to be forgiven, to be cleansed, to be justified before God. There was hope for them yet. Jesus had given them hope.
My point in revisiting this topic is this: I would ask readers who have stuck with me thus far to note that I could have written the entire previous post on the topic of adulterers instead of using LGBTs as the subject of my analogy. After all, adulterers are right down there with the tax collectors in the eyes of the self-righteous:
"The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men -- robbers, evildoers, adulterers -- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' " (Lk18:11-12)
Or I could have written the post analogizing to gamblers, or prostitutes, or drunkards, or any of the many other categories of sinners. 

But I did not. I admit that I deliberately singled out LGBTs for my comments. Was this a show of prejudice? I know that there will be those who received it as such, and so wrote it off as not worthy of their notice. I cannot do anything about that, so I will waste no time regretting that I did not reach those people. But to the rest, here is the simple reason why the focus of the post was on LGBT Christians: It is because only they, and not the adulterers, gamblers, drunkards or misers, or any other sizeable group of fellow sinners, have a militantly organized lobby in the Church who are demanding "rights" from it which it cannot rightfully give and still remain faithful to its Gospel. And in demanding what is not theirs to have, that lobby is tearing apart The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion in the process.  

I will not repeat what I said in the earlier post about there being no "right" to be ordained, or to have a same-sex union blessed. That much should be self-evident to anyone who recognizes God as the sole authority in the life of the Church. By organizing as a political group in the Church, by pre-screening and carefully picking their deputies to General Convention, by having membership on Title IV Review Committees who bring baseless charges of "abandonment" against clergy who are caught in a Catch-22 in trying to be faithful to their ordination vows, and by supporting bishops who trample on the Constitution and canons in their drive to expel and punish the faithful, the LGBT lobby is fully deserving of being singled out. Far from evidencing prejudice, to comment on their outrageous demands, and to point up the destruction they have brought to the Church, is no more than a curmudgeon's duty. And if that be prejudice, so be it---it is a worthy charge to accept in service of the Church in which I grew up.

Perhaps most egregious of all are those among the LGBTs who now are tired of the fight as well, and who, having managed to bring the Church into disorder and confusion, are saying that the time has come to discard it:
I am not sure what to say; "things are slowly getting better" is very cold comfort, and it does not mean things have become tolerable for all the "improvement."

Still, there are affirming communities in TEC that are not wavering or wobbling in their commitment, and it seems the HoD is very sympathetic.

What other course is there, in any such case, other than building up base communities? Going it alone?

Yes, I think going it alone is better, honestly. In fact, it's starting to feel to me like the 3rd Century, and the desert seems to beckon.

Hey, listen: I'm not alone. The pews continue to empty out as people continue to recognize how crazy the church is. It's just not a healthy environment.

I think we really can do better on our own . . . I don't mean alone, individually, but joined with one another, outside the institution. The Desert Fathers and Mothers did it that way, after all.

I think the church is done for, really. It's corrupt and unhealthy, and I don't see that changing anytime soon; the secular world is actually healthier, in fact, I think. Meantime, we do have a chance to be part of building something better.

I do appreciate the things you've written here, though! And there's nothing that stops any of us from writing and speaking and being a part of our own communities. But the institution isn't worth it any longer, I don't think.  
No, there is "nothing that stops any of us from writing and speaking and being a part of our own communities," especially after the tidal forces of activism have wrecked the larger Church community we once had. But the instinct now to walk away from the wreckage bears out the truth of this passage:
False assurance and a smug attitude bedevil the heretic. He is so enchanted by his own twisted logic that he loses the ability to doubt his feelings, turning his faith into a fierce fanaticism that seeks to devour the weak and make more converts to his side.

The Church must ask itself: how does this happen? How could faithful people be so beguiled by their own thoughts that they give up on Christ and set aside Gospel values? What has caused them to fail God?

The shame of the Church is this: that those who once espoused a faithful life are now inclined to berate Christ’s followers and subvert the Gospel. The heretic now has his own agenda to destroy the Church from within, looking to corrupt the body of Christ with a disloyal, agitated, and unloving heart.

The Bible is full of fallen servants, whose desires overcome their devotion to God. They are plagued with envy, guilt, and pride. In order to be restored to God’s community, they need to seek mercy and grace, forgiveness and pardon. The heretic cannot bring himself to do this. His false integrity and uncompromising pride makes him withhold his contrition and repentance, leading him into the path of perdition.

. . . 

God knows those who are His and He embraces those who belong to Him, even if they have fallen from grace. God loves the sinner without embracing the sin. And the faithful fallen one seeks His clemency and benevolence, favor and restoration.

Not so the heretic. He remains pure in his own eyes and does not seek the Lord’s favor. He makes his own restitution and belittles those who acknowledge their weaknesses. The heretic wallows in his own thoughts and bathes his soul in his own understanding.

Even amongst Christ’s own company, of those who walked and talked with Him, were some who chose to go another way. His message was too hard to endure; His demands were too high to achieve. They chose to make their own religion and follow an easier way. But not all of Christ’s disciples chose this. Some remained with Him until His arrest. The way was hard, but they kept their hope in the Lord.

In every generation, [there] are those who start [in] the Lord’s company, but end up taking their own sides. No church, no community of faith, no congregation of the faithful is without its critics or heretics. Even in the Lord’s solemn and sacred company of apostles was one who would choose to betray Him.

We are naïve if we believe that the Church is perfect and free from heresy. The sad thing to note is this: the Church is the breeding ground for heresy. It strikes from within and causes trouble amongst the faithful. Shepherds of the sheep must always be vigilant and look for leaders of the wolf pack.

In the end, heretics choose schism over sanctification, and division instead of devotion. They are not forced out of the church; they separate themselves from the body of Christ. They enforce their own anathema.


  1. What an amazing selection from Tertullian you found!

  2. Thank you, Perpetua. However, I do not think the quote is taken from Tertullian's original text on Against Heresies, but is instead a modern paraphrase prepared by the author of the blog I cited, who obviously knows his Tertullian. It encapsulated so perfectly the point I wanted to make that I stopped searching the original texts once I found it.

  3. Thanks AS for linking to my paraphrasing of Tertullian. I need to get back to it. I started it as a project to make Tertullian more understandable. It amazes me how relevant his writings are for the Church of today.

  4. Stushie, I commend you for your fine work, and hope you can find the time to complete it. It serves just the purpose you wanted: to make Tertullian easily accessible so that modern readers can easily see, as you say, his relevance to the problems we face now.

    Also, I would like to call attention to two very thoughtful posts on the general topic of this one, both written by people who are currently serving as clergy (unlike yours truly). First is this post by The Conservative Churchman, which makes several further excellent points about how the "full inclusion" agenda is hurting the mission of the Church. (Don't miss also the lengthy comment by Sarah, who represents the LGBT position with grace, but who is, apparently, unaware that the common misreading of the Greek word "pais" ("boy," "son," or "child") in Mt 8:5-13 is not supported by the parallel passages in Luke (7:1-10) or in John (4:46-54). (See the definitive analysis of these passages by Dr. Robert Gagnon for details.)

    The second post people should read in connection with what is said here is this very pragmatic and thoughtful one by Fr. Nathan Humphrey, for whose moderate views I have great respect. He very calmly and pastorally brings the dialog back to the ground where it needs to be played out, and stresses again the point, which apparently cannot be made often enough, that Christians need to be very careful about letting their resentment of the LGBT political agenda turn into a rejection of them in church as well. Nothing I have written here has been directed against LGBTs as persons, or as Christians; my umbrage is derived entirely from their radical attempts to introduce the politics of civil rights into the arena of the church, where you simply have no civil rights before God. (It is an inverting of the Divine Authority to speak in that fashion, or as I say in the post, a confusion as to just Who is in charge.) So I would appreciate it if anyone exercised by my posts would please settle down and read Father Humphrey before going on elsewhere; he says it better than I can, because he is a priest having to deal practically with the problem of how you actually minister to sinners---not just LGBTs, but all of us.

  5. Dear A.S. Haley,

    Thank you for your compliment regarding my post on the Conservative Churchman. I have read the document by Dr. Gagnon that you linked to, and I find much of it unconvincing and something of an attempt to bolster a specific point of view rather than to seriously examine the question. The first reason given, for example, that "Sex with male slaves was not a universal phenomenon" cannot hide the fact that it was still a pretty widespread one, and this information does nothing for or against either of our cases. To claim it is a reason against the centurion being in a homosexual relationship seems to me poor scholarship.

    I did, however, break out my Greek New Testament and learnt that John does indeed seem to refer to the centurion's son. This is an interesting new piece of information that obviously contradicts what I wrote previously: I will have to read around this issue and research further. Thank you for pointing this out.


    Sarah McCulloch

  6. Sarah, Thank you for stopping by, and for your comments here. I did indeed cite Dr. Gagnon only for the point that John uses the word huios "son" rather than Mark's more generic term pais, while Luke uses the Greek word for a slave, or doulos. Luke also has the centurion going through Jewish elders to ask for Jesus' help, which makes the reading you gave even more unlikely. You can of course disagree with Dr. Gagnon on his other points, but the difference in terms and treatment among the various gospels does not tend to support the reading of Mark that you are drawing, particularly when such a significant conlusion---that Jesus made no objection to a homosexual relationship---depends on it.

    That much being said, I welcome your contributions to the debate, because they are a pleasure to read, and worlds apart from many others that are on the Web.