Thursday, September 21, 2006

Why don't sharks eat tax collectors?

Today is the feast of St. Matthew, aka Levi, son of Alphaeus, TAX COLLECTOR (doom music).

It was bad luck not to say "tax collectors" whenever you said "prostitutes" in the culture of Jesus' time. Like peas and carrots.

Today's Gospel:

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.
While he was at table in his house,
many tax collectors and sinners
came and sat with Jesus and his disciples.
The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples,
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
He heard this and said, “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.”

Do you think tax collectors were the lawyers of that day? Admired but envied, resented, mocked, stereotyped. Surely there were honest and merciful ones, but they were lost in a sea of criticism.

There's a certain dramatic courtroom flourish in Matthew's actions: he just upped and walked away from his customs post. Picture it: no explanations, no final tallying, presumably mid-customer, jaws dropping as he walked away, silently, following Jesus. And then a big dinner with all his flashy friends....

The Donald would do it this way; Gotti would have done it this way. Their motives and impetus would be different, but from the outside, it would look the same. When I try and picture Gospel scenes in meditation, maybe I'll give Matthew a big glossy combover and a Versace suit in the "before" scenes.

St. Matthew, pray for all those who have unpopular jobs!


Henry Dieterich said...

It wasn't just that they had an unpopular job; they were agents of an occupying power. The Romans had a clever system for administering their provinces cheaply: rather than sending out a bunch of trained administrators to collect taxes, who would have to learn the local language and be a burden on the budget, they recruited publicani from the local population and contracted with them to collect the taxes in return for a cut of the proceeds. The temptation to take a little extra was irresistable for the tax collectors (see John the Baptist's command that they collect no more than their due), so they were often guilty of fraud, as Zaccheus admitted when he repented. But the main reason they were disliked was that they were--in a word current after the Second World War--quislings. For Jews, this was compounded by the ritual impurity incurred by frequent dealings with the Romans.

Lawyer, sinner and saint wana be said...

Please be advised that there are lawyers who 1) represent the I.R.S.; 2) defend people from the I.R.S.; 3) prosecute prostitutes; 4) defend prositutes; 5)prosecute sex abuser priests; 6) defend sex abuser priests; 7) sue the Church; 8)defend the Church; 9)help the elderly and disabled with legal problems relating to overwhelyming payments demanded by allegedly Catholic hosptials; 10) try and collect such payments from the elderly and disabled and sometime poor on behalf of those hospitals; 11)believe in God and live their faith; 12)couldn't care less about matters of faith; 12)are saints; 13)may well be going to hell; 14)may actually get to heaven in spite of their reputation since it's who they are not what people say about them that counts.

The same sort of thing probably applies to tax collectors. I'm not so sure about prostitutes, but I'll bet some of them have may surprise us.

Therese Z said...

Lawyer/sinner, you are absolutely right, of course. But there IS a stereotype of lawyers, an immediately identifiable image, and that's what I was comparing the words "tax collector" to in Scripture.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a favorable mention of all the protection and help that lawyers give in the media today. And nowhere in the Bible do we see a favorable description of tax collector!

Thanks for adding this thought to the discussion.



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