Tag Archives: tax collectors

Saturday, 3rd Week of Lent

Lent 1


Readings
In Luke’s gospel Jesus often sides with people living in complicated situations they find hard, almost impossible to get out of – tax collectors, prostitutes, widows, sinners like the prodigal son. They call out for God’s mercy, and Jesus shows them mercy.

A number of tax collectors appear in the gospels. There’s the tax collector in Luke’s account today, there’s Zachaeus the chief tax collector in Jericho. There’s also Mathew, the tax collector in Caphernaum, whom Jesus asked to follow him. There’s no evidence that Jesus asked all Matthew’s friends– also tax collectors– to leave their posts and give up the dirty profession they’re engaged in.

The chief tax collector Zachaeus promised a substantial gift to the poor after receiving Jesus into his house, but again there is no evidence he gave up his job as chief tax collector in Jericho. Nor did any of the tax collectors under him.

There’s no evidence the tax collector in the parable today did so either. Still, God’s mercy was at work in them.

We’re reading from Hosea these last two days, the prophet whose wife left him. If I read him right, as Hosea calls out to Israel to come back to God, he’s also calling out to his wife to come back. He seems aware she may not think it possible to come back, so he keeps inviting her. Come back to me. It’s mercy calling out.

We’re reading the parable about the tax collector praying in the back of the temple from Luke’s Gospel. (Luke 18, 9-14) Staying at a distance, eyes down, the tax collector says only a few words:“O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” He recognizes his distance from God and calls for mercy.

The Pharisee’s prayer is so different, so full of himself. He sees no need for mercy. There’s nothing in him that needs redemption. He seems to ask only for applause and approval.

The tax collector asks only for mercy. His prayer is heard so shouldn’t we make it our own? Tax-collectors,  widows and sinners stand closest to where all humanity stands. We all need God’s mercy. We come to God empty-handed.
“O God come to my assistance. O Lord make haste to help me.”

Call for God’s mercy, St. Paul of the Cross often counseled: “I wish you to remain in your horrible nothingness, knowing that you have nothing, can do nothing and know nothing. God doesn’t do anything for those who wish to be something; but one who is aware of his nothingness in truth, is ready. ‘If anyone thinks himself to be something, he deceives himself,’ said the Apostle, whose name I bear unworthily. (St. Paul of the Cross, Letter 1033)

“O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Mercy Comes to Your House

Zachaeus

Luke often tells stories of God’s mercy. Today we’re reading at Mass the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho, a wealthy man whom Jesus called down from a tree and stayed with on his way to Jerusalem. His story is a lesson about mercy. (Luke 19, 1-10)

As chief-tax collector, Zacchaeus was an agent for Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee and Perea in Jesus’ day. Uncovering the ruins of Herod’s building projects in Galilee and elsewhere, archeologists point out that Herod built on a grand scale and lavishly, to impress his allies the Romans.

You needed money for building like that, of course, and that’s where tax-collectors came in. There was no dialogue or voting on government spending then. Herod told his army of tax-collectors, “Here’s how much I need; you go out and get it. Go to the fishermen along the Sea of Galilee and the farmers around Nazareth and the shepherds in the Jordan Valley and the merchants in Jericho and get what I need; I don’t care how, but get it.”

And so the tax collectors went out and got the money, keeping some for themselves. You needed to be tough and relentless for the job. It left you hard headed and hard hearted. An unsavory profession. The people resented them.

Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho, was the one whom Jesus called and the one he stayed with on his way to Jerusalem. Objections came, not just from the Pharisees and scribes, who usually objected to Jesus’ actions, but everyone objected.

The only thing Jesus says is: “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” No thunderous warnings or stern corrections. Salvation has come and they sit down for a feast. You can hear in the story echoes of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, also from Luke’s gospel.

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Notice, too, that Jesus doesn’t call Zacchaeus to follow him to Jerusalem, as the blind man cured by Jesus on the journey through Jericho does.  He does not call him to follow him as he did the other tax collector, Matthew. He doesn’t tell Zacchaeus to give up his job and get out of that dirty, complicated situation. No, as far as we can tell Zacchaeus was still chief tax-collector in Jericho after Jesus left, still taking orders from Herod Antipas, still part of a sinful world. But that’s where Zacchaeus will experience salvation, even there.

God’s mercy works in the real world and in real life.

Matthew, the tax collector


Jews  usually turned away as they passed the customs place where Matthew, the tax-collector, was sitting. But look at our gospel for today:

“As Jesus passed by, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.”

To celebrate their new friendship, Matthew invited Jesus to a banquet at his house with his friends – tax collectors like himself – and Jesus came with some of his disciples. They were criticized immediately for breaking one of Capernaum’s social codes. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Jesus’ answer was quick: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Hardly anything is known of Matthew’s part in Jesus’ later ministry, yet surely the tradition must be correct that says he recorded much of what Jesus said and did. Tax collectors were good at keeping books. Was Matthew’s task to keep memories? Did he remember some things that were especially related to his world?

The gospels say that wherever Jesus went he was welcomed by tax collectors. When he entered Jericho, Zachaeus, the chief tax collector of the city, climbed a tree to see him pass, since the crowds were so great. Did Matthew point out the man in the tree to Jesus, a tax collector like himself, who brought them all to his house, where Jesus left his blessing of salvation? And did tax collectors in other towns come to Jesus because they recognized one of their own among his companions?

Probably so. Jesus always looked kindly on outsiders like Matthew who were targets of suspicion and resentment. True, they belonged to a compromised profession tainted by greed, dishonesty and bribery. Their dealings were not always according to the fine line of right or wrong.

But they were children of God and, like lost sheep, Jesus would not let them be lost.

Pope Francis said he got his vocation to be a priest on the Feast of St. Matthew, when he went to confession and heard God’s call, a call of mercy.

Matthew’s Gospel?

The gospels themselves recall little about Matthew, an apostle of Jesus. We have his name, his occupation and a brief story of a banquet that took place with Jesus and some of his friends after his call.  ( Mt 9: 9-13; Mk 2:3-12; Lk5:18-26) As it is, the gospels concentrate on the ministry and teaching of Jesus. 

In the early centuries, those who knew Jesus told his story and brought his message to the world. As they died, writings about him gradually appeared, but there are only scarce references to who wrote them. St. Justin Martyr in the early 2nd century speaks of the “memoirs of the apostles”, without indicating any author by name. Later in that century, St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, writing against the Gnostics who claim a superior knowledge of Jesus Christ attributes the gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are eyewitnesses who really know Jesus firsthand; they have given us their “memoirs.” 

Scholars today are less likely to credit Matthew’s Gospel to the tax-collector from Capernaum whom Jesus called. Some of his memoirs perhaps may be there– after all he came from a profession good at accounting for things. But too many indications point to other sources. Why would Matthew, if he is an eyewitness, depend on Mark’s Gospel as he does? Language, the structure of the gospel, the circumstances it addresses, point to a Jewish-Christian area beyond Palestine as its source, probably Antioch in Syria, probably written around the year 8o, after the Gospel of Mark.

Traditions says that Matthew preached in Ethiopia and Persia, but they have no historical basis.

He is remembered as a martyr who died for the faith, but again there is no historical basis. 

Better to see Matthew as the gospel sees him: one of the first outsiders whom Jesus called. And he would not be the last..

Zacchaeus, Come Down

Zachaeus
We celebrate two days at the beginning of November that look beyond this world to the world to come: the Feast of All Saints and All Souls Day, November 1st and 2nd. The Feast of All Saints is not just a feast of canonized saints, like Mary the Mother of Jesus, Peter and Paul, Mother Teresa. It celebrates our belief that a great number– beyond counting according to St. John– are with God now. Each of us knows some good and faithful people who must be among them.

What about All Souls Day? I wonder if on that day we recognize there’s human weakness, as well as human goodness, in those God calls for judgment. They need God’s purifying mercy for their sins, their misuse of God’s gifts, their meanness, their lack of faith and hope and love. We know people like that too, maybe we can see ourselves in them.

The more important of these two November days is the Feast of All Saints, which proclaims the God’s mercy to be stronger than our sinfulness. It’s beyond what we expect. We hope and pray for it.

Our readings for this Sunday are about God’s mercy, a mercy that pursues us through this life and into the next. (Wisdom 11, 22-12,20) Our gospel story about the call of Zacchaeus is a special lesson in God’s mercy. Zacchaeus, the chief tax-collector in Jericho, is a wealthy man whom Jesus called down from a tree and then stayed in his house on his way to Jerusalem. (Luke 19, 1-10)

As Jericho’s chief-tax collector, Zacchaeus was an agent for Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea in Jesus’ day. Archeologists are still uncovering ruins of a good many of Herod’s building projects in Galilee and elsewhere. He built on a grand scale and he built lavishly, to impress his allies, the Romans.

Of course, you need money for his kind of building, and that’s where tax-collectors come in. There was no dialogue or voting on government spending then. Herod told his army of tax-collectors, “Here’s how much I need; you go out and get it. Go to the fishermen along the Sea of Galilee and the farmers near Nazareth and get what I need; I don’t care how you squeeze it out of them.” And the tax collectors went out and got him the money, and kept some for themselves.

You needed to be tough and relentless for the job. It had to leave you hard headed and hard hearted. People bitterly resented the tax collectors. Zacchaeus, chief tax collector in Jericho, led them all, and he was the one whom Jesus called down from a tree and stayed with on his way to Jerusalem.

The only words Jesus said to Zacchaeus, according to the gospel, are these: “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” No thunderous warnings or stern corrections. Jesus declares that salvation has come and they sit down for a feast. In this story you can hear echoes of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, also from Luke’s gospel.

Zacchaeus encountered the goodness and mercy of God in Jesus and it changed him. Goodness and mercy changes people. When we encounter the goodness and mercy of God we’re changed too.

We have to ask: Is God’s mercy a thing of the past, or limited only to this life? Will it also pursue us in death? Jesus will judge us at that moment. Will his judgment of us be like his judgment of Zacchaeus? When he calls us home, will he be merciful as he was to the tax-collector?

We see now in signs; we hear promises. Then we will see him face to face, and his goodness will change us, the sight of him will purify us.

God’s mercy pursues us, now in signs, then face to face. As we look upon the Bread come down from heaven at Mass we hear, “Behold, the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.” God’s mercy is proclaimed, as it was for Zacchaeus, at a supper.