Tax Collectors and Sinners

This reflection was given at Morning Prayer at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on Thursday of the Thirty-first Week in Ordinary Time (Cycle II), November 5, 2020. The audio is available here.


“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Friends, consider the scene at the beginning of today’s Gospel. The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to Jesus because they wanted to listen to Him. Interesting group of people, isn’t it? Tax collectors and sinners. St. Luke manages to suggest in four neat words the great mass of unwashed deplorables, the hoi polloi of Israel and Judea, the kind of people Ted Hughes describes rather more colorfully in his translation of Bacchus and Pentheus:

“Children and their teachers, laborers, bankers,
Mothers and grandmothers, merchants, agents,
Prostitutes, politicians, police,
Scavengers and accountants, lawyers and burglars,
Builders, layabouts, tradesmen, con-men,
Scoundrels, tax-collectors, academicians,
Physicians, morticians, musicians, magicians,
The idle rich and the laughing mob!”

“Bacchus and Pentheus,” trans. Ted Hughes, in Tales from Ovid (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997), 68-75

These came to hear the Gospel, the word of life from the lips of the one that some in the crowd whispered excitedly was the “Christ,” the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. But the scribes and Pharisees, the religious élite, draw back. They stand apart from the crowds. These are not their kind of people, after all. And they whisper to one another something altogether different than the crowds, something they mean to be a condemnation of the whole phenomenon of the prophet from Nazareth: “This man, this Jesus, welcomes these sinners!”

If he were a prophet, if he were from God, he would reject them. If he were truly the Son of God, he would be with us. Are we not the teachers of the people? Are we not righteous? Do we not keep the law, fast, tithe, purify our hands? By the very fact that he welcomes them, he rejects us. And if he rejects us, then he rejects the covenant, the temple, the law—he places himself against God!

The seeds of their condemnation of Jesus before Pilate are already planted here in whispers.

For the Pharisees and scribes, after all, the line was clear. Those who do what the law commands are righteous and worthy of reward. Those who do not are wicked and deserving of punishment.

What the Pharisees and the scribes fail to see is that the line was not drawn between these worthy people of God and those tax collectors and sinners. The line is drawn down the center of every human heart. And here is the fundamental difference between the hearts of the Pharisees and the sinners from whom they draw back: the Pharisees are confident in their flesh, that is, in their Jewish bloodline, in the mark of the circumcision which made them members of the people of God, in their tribe, in their status, in righteousness based on the law.

Who could accuse them of any sin? In the reading we heard from his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul says that according to the law, “I was blameless,” and we have no reason to doubt that the Pharisees could say the same. What reason do they have to repent and believe in the Gospel of this preacher from Nazareth? They can stand tall before God and man on the strength of their own conduct.

Not so these sinners. The tax collectors were considered sell-outs and traitors to their own people, more Romans than Jews. These people coming to hear Jesus have no status. They have no dignity. But they see more clearly than the Pharisees, whose deadly pride and self-righteousness has made them blind: this man is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

The Pharisees have confidence in themselves. The sinners can only have confidence in Him.

Dear Christian people, what the scribes and Pharisees whispered with horror and resentment, we proclaim with boundless joy. This man, Jesus, true God and true Man, welcomes sinners!

He does not welcome sin. He cannot, any more than light can welcome darkness: “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). But He is that “light from light, true God from true God,” who goes forth into the world in search of sinners to call us to repentance and bring us back to life. Like the woman in the parable who lights a lamp and overturns the house to find her one lost coin, Jesus is that light who comes forth from God and moves heaven and earth to find one lost soul, that Good Shepherd who will leave the ninety-nine in search of the one whom he has lost. Unlike the Pharisees, this God never writes anyone off as a lost cause: He goes after the lost one until he finds it. And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy.

Imagine the look on the Pharisees’ faces when Jesus turns to them and says, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety- nine ‘righteous people’ who have no need of repentance!”

They know he means them. They know he is saying that one of these poor sinners, if he only repents and believes in the Gospel, if he puts his trust in Jesus, the very “face of the Father’s mercy” (Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, §1) and “goes and sins no more,” is a greater joy to God and all His angels and saints than ninety-nine stiff-necked, self-righteous Pharisees. And they hate him for it. One day, they will kill him for it.

But dear friends, we love him for it. Because we are among that crowd of sinners, you and I. We “do not put our confidence in the flesh”; we know we are not blameless; we cannot come to God proud of our own merits. We are the poor and broken ones who come before Him often uncertainly, with our eyes lowered. We have been wounded before. We have been rejected. We know our faults all too well. We worry that we are not good enough for God—or at least that He would prefer to spend His time with holier, better, more perfect people than the likes of us.

But this God of ours does not demand that we be perfect to approach Him. He waits for us with patience. If we are lost, he comes in search of us. And when we draw near at last to listen to Him, He says to us again: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

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