Haunted by the tax collector

We have the current debacle of the Wells Fargo Bank (in October 2016).  According to the media, this is a bank which unduly pressurized economically vulnerable people like the elderly, burdening them with financial services they did not need: oppressive, manipulative, cruel, and less than honest.

We have tertiary colleges, which have drawn heavily upon students and upon Federal government study funds.  In closing down, ITT has abandoned students with no way to complete their certificates – which were not leading to sufficient jobs, anyway.  ITT appears to have been been oppressive, manipulative, cruel, and less than honest.

We have the TV series “The Sopranos”, about the Mafia in New Jersey.  Any such ‘Mafioso’ portrayed there was oppressive, manipulative, cruel, and dishonest.

These are all current examples of a bad kind of person: oppressive, manipulative, cruel and dishonest.

There is a connection with our Gospel reading (Luke 18 verse 9 forwards), about the prayers of the Pharisee compared to the tax collector.

Tax collectors were despised in Galilee and Judea, and for good reason.   For tax collection agents were seen as people representing oppression, Roman collaboration, manipulation, cruelty, and dishonesty.  With their terrible taxes, up to 60%, sent to Roman officials, with a slice for themselves, tax collectors bankrupted a good percentage of the Jewish population, and rendered them homeless.

Our bad actions have consequences – as we see in the reading from Jeremiah (14:7-10, 19-22), where the perverted Jewish nation was heading to exile in Babylon.

Back to our Gospel parable today:  So all that is about the bad tax collector in this parable. On the other hand, the Pharisee in this parable was of those who did all in their power to be good citizens.

Pharisees learned, lived, and taught the Jewish law, including the resurrection, and they helped the poorer Jews of the time. They tithed not only their money, but everything else.  They were probably better than most of us!

Pharisees were seen as respectable, or even admirable.  They were likely regarded as we may regard a hard working professional, who is a respected member of community organizations, urging everyone to obey God’s laws and take care of others.  Jesus and Paul were probably similar to them.

In this parable Jesus was not condoning the very bad behavior of the tax collector.  Rather, Jesus was saying, as bad as the tax collector was, he still had the one critically important thing: that he threw himself on God’s mercy.

Vice versa, Jesus was not denigrating the Pharisee.  Rather, he was saying, as good as the Pharisee was, yet he lacked that same critically important thing: he did not feel he needed God’s mercy!

We read that the tax collector went home justified, and the Pharisee did not.  This resonates with St Paul’s great theme, that we are not justified primarily by any type of good behavior.  However good or bad we are, we are justified with God only by trust and faith in God’s mercy through the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross. This saving faith, this saving root then germinates through the love of God.  If it is true faith, it grows and flowers in better behavior later on.

One important and very humbling aspect of our depending on God’s grace is expressed in the offertory sentence, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”  Whatever intelligence, or ability, or beauty we may have is a gracious gift from God, an undeserved gift for which we should be grateful.

Another aspect of our depending on God’s grace is the truth that we are all sinners–as the tax collector prays, “Be merciful or gracious to me, a sinner”.

There are several times I have felt almost paralyzed with anxiety or grief, for example at the time of my parent’s divorce when I was a teenager.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” was a constantly repeated prayer that drew me through that valley of the shadow.

As illustration of, “God have mercy on me, a sinner” is visible in TV courtroom Judge Mathis who at one time traded drugs and was imprisoned; and then repented and now serves the community as a judge.

Or, again, Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston, who, despite alcoholism, has risen to an eminent position and seems to be doing a great job.

Or, again, the acclaimed poet Milton, who when grievously afflicted, wrote, “They also serve (God), who only stand and wait.”

The tax collector’s prayer in this gospel reading is reflected in the recurring and often sung strophes of the Kyrie in the Eucharist: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy”.

The tax collector’s prayer is also reflected in the Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox Church through centuries, “Jesus son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

The first line of this litany “Lord, have mercy (or love, or kindness)” is like one finger of the left hand.  Then the second line of this litany, “Christ, have mercy (or love, or kindness)”, is like a finger of the right hand.  As the litany proceeds, the fingers fold together, one by one, until we are hand in hand, fingers interlaced with our Lord Jesus Christ, in loving companionship, every moment of every day.

It is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.  Not only that: at the conclusion of our lives, with Paul in his epistle titled 2 Timothy, we find again that the fear of the Lord is also the end of wisdom, and that same prayer: “Be merciful or gracious to me, a sinner”.

If you are going through fires, woes, or the depth of night, of floods, let this be your unending prayer, and song: Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy.  Hand in hand with our loving Lord Jesus Christ, fingers interlaced, there will come the moment when, as you look back on this moment, that you will see that God has brought you through.

October 23, 2016

Trinity, Whitinsville MA

St. John’s Millville MA

Sun 27 October 2013; Sun 23 Oct 2016.



Another example of humility is in the case of Albert Einstein as a humble academic.  Einstein, who was something of an agnostic, said he believed in some kind of a God, yet, believed with “An attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”  Humility suits academics as well, for academics along with everyone else are all subject to subsequent generations, proved to a degree either correct or incorrect.



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