Friday, August 15, 2008

Jesus and the Sinful Tax Collectors

The excellent and very useful Bible History site has a good overview of what was so wrong about the tax collectors in Jesus' day:

The Jewish people were under the yoke of foreign oppressors ever since the Babylonian captivity. During the New Testament times the land of Israel was within the province of Syria and the tax collectors were collectors of Roman taxes, they were extortioners, and very despised.

The Jews detested these tax collectors not only on account of their abusive and tyrannical attitude, but because the very taxes that they were forced to collect by the Roman government were a badge of servitude and a constant reminder that God had forsaken His people. The tax collectors were always classed by the people with the harlots, usurers, gamblers, thieves, and dishonest herdsmen, who lived promiscuous, lawless lives. Some of the common terms for the tax collectors were "licensed robbers" and "beasts in human shape."

According to Rabbinism there was no hope for a tax collector. They were excluded from all religious fellowship including the Temple and Synagogue. Their money was considered tainted and it defiled anyone who accepted it. They could not serve as a witness in any court in Israel. The Rabbis had no word to describe any sort of help for the tax collector, because they expected him to externally conform to the law in order to be justified before God.
"Beasts in human shape"---sounds pretty exclusory, does it not? Tax collectors were the lowest of the low, outcasts and pariahs, who had only their wealth to console them---and doubtless that was enough for most of them. Until Jesus came into their midst:

The attitude of Jesus toward the tax collectors was in stark contrast to that of the Rabbis. He had come to seek and save the lost. The Pharisees were separatists, and did not lower themselves to have anything to do with a tax collector, who was to them no better than a Gentile. But Jesus came not to condemn anyone, but to save every sinner and offer a better life. He never taught that there was anything inherently wrong with paying tribute to the Roman Government or collecting the tax. He was opposed to extortioners, but would fling open the door of repentance and salvation to them. He rejected none, not even the worst.

Jesus made himself a friend of men, even of the tax collectors and the worst of sinners. He set a new precedent among the Jews by accepting and associating with the tax collectors. He ate with them (Mark 2:16), He offered salvation to them (Luke 19:9), and He even chose a tax collector (Matthew) as one of His twelve disciples (Matt 9:9).

Luke 18:9-14 "Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men--extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Many people today who are gay, lesbian or bisexual in their orientation, or who have undergone gender transformation, see themselves as social outcasts on a par with the first-century tax collectors. And to the extent such discrimination takes place against any LGBT person (to use the collective acronym) in the secular world or in any Church, it is to be denounced and opposed. Jesus' example to us demands no less of any Christian.

It is a confusion of categories, however, to believe that it is equally discriminatory to deny ordination to a non-celibate LGBT person, or to refuse to bestow a Church blessing on their unions. The result of this confusion is that LGBT's see themselves as "victims", and people like V. Gene Robinson become a symbol of society's oppression, on the one hand, or of a radical vanguard that is transforming the Church, on the other hand. Neither role is correct.

The reason for this statement is again found in the Gospels. What did Jesus tell Matthew, who was a tax collector?
Mt9:9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. And he got up and followed him. 9:10 As Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Jesus and his disciples. 9:11 When the Pharisees saw this they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 9:12 When Jesus heard this he said, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. 9:13 Go and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus did not tell Matthew to continue on in his sinful ways. He required that Matthew give them up, and follow him (see also Luke 5:27-28). Then he used Matthew's friendships with other tax collectors to reach out to them as well, over dinners at Matthew's house. He reached out to them, not because they were righteous, or good companions, but because they were sinners, and Jesus came to call sinners.

Another tax collector, Zacchaeus, recognized what Jesus required of him without even being asked:

Lk19:1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. 19:2 Now a man named Zacchaeus was there; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 19:3 He was trying to get a look at Jesus, but being a short man he could not see over the crowd. 19:4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, because Jesus was going to pass that way. 19:5 And when Jesus came to that place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, because I must stay at your house today.” 19:6 So he came down quickly and welcomed Jesus joyfully. 19:7 And when the people saw it, they all complained, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 19:8 But Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, half of my possessions I now give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times as much!” 19:9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham! 19:10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
"The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost." "Today salvation has come to this household"---why? Because Zacchaeus agreed to give up his sinful trade, and to make amends to those he had wronged.

The lesson from the Gospels is clear: Jesus did not associate with sinners to celebrate their sinful orientations; he called on them to repent of their ways and stop sinning. Still less did Jesus make Matthew one of his disciples and allow him to continue sinning as a tax collector: he required him to give up his profession altogether in order to become His disciple.

I say that the lesson from the Gospels is clear, but there are many who still disagree. In doing so, however, I submit that they distort (or ignore altogether) Jesus' clear calls for repentance. Here, for example, is how one author sympathetic to LGBT's reads the same passages I have just quoted (I have put in bold the statements with which I take issue):
The tax collectors were Jews who collected taxes from fellow Jews for the Roman Empire. They made their living by charging an extra amount. Some of them made more than a living. They exacted any amount they could and thus became well to do. They were considered traitors who became wealthy by collaborating with Roman authorities at the expense of their own people.

The sinners who are grouped with the tax collectors were not ordinary sinners. The Pharisees along with others could readily admit that everyone is, after all, a sinner and in need of God's mercy and forgiveness. But the sinners associated with tax collectors were in a special class. These were people who deliberately and persistently transgressed the requirements of the law. Included in this group would be money-lenders who charged interest on loans advanced to fellow Jews. This was a clear violation of the law of God stated in Leviticus 25:36-38.

Also in this group of sinners might be prostitutes who made their living by their ill-gotten gains. These were individuals who sold themselves to a life of sin in deliberate disregard of the law of God.

Yet, Jesus apparently associated with such people at dinner parties. The Pharisees charged that Jesus was "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Luke 7:34). Even though Jesus belonged to the middle class, he reached out to people of the lower class. On one occasion Jesus said to some religious leaders in Jerusalem, "The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you" (Matthew 21:31).

It's not hard to see why the Pharisees and others were upset that Jesus had table fellowship with people who were morally questionable. These individuals were profiting by disobeying the command of God and betraying their own people. They were what the Old Testament calls the wicked, unworthy to be part of the people of God.

Now, if Jesus had fellowship with tax collectors and sinners in order to preach to them, the Pharisees would not have fussed. After all, who would have objected that tax collectors and sinners were forsaking their sinful lifestyle, making restitution, and seeking a life of righteousness? The Pharisees believed that God offered forgiveness when sinners repented. They could even rejoice that a wretched sinner saw the light and was converted from a life of debauchery.

But what infuriated the Pharisees was that Jesus was not explicitly or directly asking tax collectors and sinners to do any of this. Some of them no doubt did repent, such as Levi (Luke 5:28). But Jesus seems to have accepted them as they were and was freely having dinner with them without requiring that they first clean up their lives.

Of course, Jesus did have a message to proclaim to them. But his message was not, "Straighten up your life and keep the law." Rather, his message was, "The kingdom of God is yours; you are included." By eating with them, he was extending to them the kingdom of God.

When we read about the protest of the Pharisees, we are quick to condemn them and to side with Jesus. But if Jesus were physically present in our world today, would we as church people be comfortable if he spent his time with cheats and swindlers, sexually deviant individuals, gays and lesbians? Would we not be infuriated if he constantly went to their dinner parties and didn't come to ours?
If Jesus were here today, anyone familiar with the Gospels would expect Him to spend his time "with cheats and swindlers, sexually deviant individuals, gays and lesbians", and would not be uncomfortable with that in the least. What Jesus did was come to save sinners, as He Himself explained. Does one think that Jesus' method of saving them was not to preach to them about giving up their sins and leading a better life? For the author of the article just quoted, all the Gospel is about is reveling at dinner parties with loose people.

"But Jesus accepted them as they were," he says, "and was freely having dinner with them without requiring that they first clean up their lives." That is simply being dishonest with oneself. No, of course, Jesus did not tell the taxpayers, prostitutes and usurers with whom He dined: "First renounce your ways, then we can sit down to eat." Eating was a form of shared fellowship, a way of allowing the sinners to come into contact with all that is good and holy, and of creating in them the inward desire to model Christ in their lives. We have no details of how He changed these people---other than Zacchaeus and Matthew (who may have been the same person as Levi), which should be enough for any thoughtful reader---but we know what His message to them most certainly was. He said it plainly to the woman whom he saved from stoning: "Go, and sin no more."

Remember the most important of all of Jesus' sayings in the passages quoted above: "Go and learn what this saying means: I want mercy and not sacrifice." This is a reference to the Old Testament, Hosea 6:6, where the Hebrew word checed (pronounced kheh' sed) can be translated both as "mercy" and "faithfulness". Jesus, stressing the former meaning, sat and ate with sinners to show them God's mercy in living form. He was not interested in false or feigned repentance, any more than the God of whom Hosea was speaking desired a sacrifice that was not accompanied by the required moral submission, which signified the worshiper's faithfulness, or a sincere intent not to sin again. In the NET Bible, there is a substantive note which explains Hosea 6:6 as follows (I have added the bold for emphasis):
Contrary to popular misunderstanding, Hosea does not reject animal sacrifice nor cultic ritual, and advocate instead obedience only. Rather, God does not delight in ritual sacrifice without the accompanying prerequisite moral obedience (1 Sam 15:22; Pss 40:6-8; 51:16-17; Prov 21:3; Isa 1:11-17; Jer 7:21-23; Hos 6:6; Mic 6:6-8). However, if prerequisite moral obedience is present, he delights in sacrificial worship as an outward expression (Ps 51:19). Presented by a repentant obedient worshiper, whole burnt offerings were “an aroma pleasing” to the Lord (Lev 1:9, 13).
It is simply dishonest, therefore, to read the call of Jesus to fellowship with Him without the accompanying demand for genuine repentance and mending of sinful ways. The analogy to tax collectors does not serve the LGBT community's contentions in the least; instead, it underlines how they are selectively reading the Gospels.

And so we come to the final point of the analogy: Being a tax collector as such did not qualify Matthew to become a disciple---instead, his life as a tax collector was an obstacle to his being one of the Lord's followers, until he gave it up. In just the same way, having a homosexual orientation does not qualify one to be a priest, or to have one's same-sex union receive the Church's (as opposed to the State's) blessing. Just as in Matthew's case, it will be an obstacle to being a minister of Christ until the sinner repents and agrees to sin no more---i.e., agrees to remain celibate while serving as a priest. The strong resistance to this conclusion I see on the part of LGBT's is, as I said earlier, a confusion of categories: it confounds a predilection for a way of life (a greedy tendency to extort money, in the case of tax collectors) with a calling to minister for God in (or through) His church, as a faithful servant of the Lord. The former does not entitle one to be the latter---the two roles, indeed, are mutually inconsistent.

The only way for non-celibate LGBT's to evade the force of this argument is to declare outright that sex outside the covenant of Christian marriage is not a sin, or else that Christian marriage itself is a relationship that applies to more than just a man and a woman. Either way involves a violence to tradition that should give any rational person pause, because once the old concepts are redefined, there remain no limits to redefining them again, and again, and again, as convenient. (If active homosexuality is not a block to ordination, then logically neither is polygyny or polyandry, or incest; and if the Church can marry gays or lesbians, it could equally well bless bigamy, or polygamy, or incest.)

While I recognize, as I say, the right of a civil society to extend full equality to LGBT's in accordance with its democratic processes, it is limited in doing so only by the terms of its constitution. "Full equality" in the civil context does not translate into a religious context, because no one has any "civil rights" before God. All are sinners, and all are equally deserving of condemnation but for His saving Grace. There is and can be no "discrimination" in the religious context, because it is God and God alone Who determines who shall be saved. No one of us has a "right" to be ordained, or even to be called, to His ministry--- again, it is a confusion of Who is in charge to argue so.

(Indeed, TEC's current canons, such as Canon I.17.5, exhibit this same confusion. By listing a whole series of factors that are not to be used in denying to any person "rights, status or access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of this Church", including "sexual orientation," the canons confuse God's qualifications for the ministry---repenting of one's sins and promising to lead a new life in Christ---with earthly ones. Again, no one has "rights" or "status" before God, and the only access we have to an "equal place" before God is that we are all sinners in His hands.)

The Church has to stop modeling secular society when it comes to entertaining dialogue about who can be priests. The confusion in categories is overwhelming and obscuring its mission. By all means, let us kneel down together at communion---tax collectors, LGBTs, lawyers, journalists, bloggers, and all the other sinners among us. (Have I left anybody out? Just add your own profession.) Let us all together pray and work for our betterment as Christians; as I say, Jesus demands of us no less. But just as He did not allow His disciple to continue in his life as a tax collector, let us not allow the life of LGBTs to define the life of the Church.


  1. The Bible History site citation you provide says "He [Jesus] never taught that there was anything inherently wrong with paying tribute to the Roman Government or collecting the tax. He was opposed to extortioners ..."

    I guess the progressives would argue that the parallel is that "The Bible doesn't teach that there is anything inherently wrong with same sex relations. The Bible is opposed to sexual abuse (extreme inhospitality) and promiscuity."

    How should we respond to that?

  2. So to argue would be another clear confusion of categories, Perpetua. Paying one's taxes to the state is an obligation imposed by law; extorting money on top of what is legitimately owed is a violation of the law.

    But same-sex relations are a voluntary choice, not a State-imposed obligation. There is really no parallel to be drawn there at all. In advising people to pay their taxes, Jesus was doing nothing more radical than urging people to obey the law. The fact that He did not advise people to enter into healthy, wholesome and monogamous same-sex relationships is actually consistent with what the Old Testament says against homosexual practice, and cannot be used to argue that therefore he must have approved of such relationships. Otherwise, you could argue that because he didn't say anything against bigamy (or whatever other practice you want to substitute for which we don't have a saying of Jesus), he must have been in favor of it. The argument from silence always proves too much, or as we lawyers like to say: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

  3. A P.S. to my previous comment, Perpetua. The Anglican Scotist thinks he has constructed an airtight argument in favor of Biblical sanction for same-sex relationships, but he---a philosopher, to boot---has succumbed to the same error of category confusion. Can you spot it? (It occurs between steps 4 and 5.)

  4. I think this all becomes a little clearer if we also consider that once one engages in self-serving self-deception, it becomes that little bit easier to become self-servingly deceptive to others. And I mean this not solely because one then relies on the self-deceptively adopted false conclusion, but because one also has in the first instance lowered one's standards of truthfulness to be applied in subsequent instances.

    What I am suggesting is that, as an example, being unable to recall a time when I was (a) sexually aware, and (b) sexually attracted specifically to members of my own gender, I then conclude that God has instantiated me as a person defined in part by homosexual orientation. The conclusion does not follow, irrespective of any other first premises I may have relied on. For me to rely in that conclusion is to adopt flawed logic. But once I have done so, I now have (a) a premise on which I can base an argument for the blessedness of my state, and (b) the laxity of adherence to logic and logical truth necessary to use that argument to support whatever other conclusions serve my personal interest.

    Honesty, however painful to the self, is really the best policy, not because it will necessarily get me what I may desire, but it will get me what I need, namely, to the truth.

    Blessings and regards

  5. Dear Anglican Curmudgeon,

    Much, much thanks for a most excellent post!

    "He said it plainly to the woman whom he saved from stoning: "Go, and sin no more."

    Just a minor technical observation. That short passage in the Bible is under some dispute as to whether it actually belonged in the original autographs.

  6. Thank you, TU&D, for visiting and for your comments. You are quite correct---in the link in my post to the text of the NET Bible for the passage from John to which you refer, there is a substantive note explaining that the verses from John 7:53 to 8:11 are "not contained in the earliest and best manuscripts," and that goes on to give in much greater detail the reasons for regarding the passage as a later addition. Be that as it may, Jesus' words to the woman simply echo his words to the Pharisees in the two passages I quote in the post, Mt9:13 and Lk5:32: Jesus calls sinners to repentance. So I do not think the citation to John 8:11 undercuts the main argument (and with your knowledge of the texts, I am sure you already realized that). It is always good, however, to have clarity about what the Bible says and does not say---so once again, I thank you for your contribution here to that clarity.