Sunday Scriptures

Keeping Company With the Right People

by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz

TAXES! NOBODY REALLY likes them, but when have you ever you complained to a cashier at the store about the sales tax you were charged on your purchases?

Like them or not, taxes are an unavoidable part of the price we pay for living in this city, state and nation, contributing our share for the public services we receive. While there is room for debate about who gets taxed and how much taxation is appropriate, how else could we cover the cost of public education? How else could we pay firefighters and other first responders? Whatever we might think about taxes in 21st-century America, people’s attitudes toward taxes and tax collectors were markedly different in first-century Judea, and this is important for us to consider as we approach this Sunday’s reading from Luke’s Gospel, in which a tax collector figures prominently.

More Than Their Share

In modern times, IRS employees – and other federal, state and municipal personnel responsible for tax collection and the enforcement of tax laws – are public servants engaged in a function of government. In the first century, tax collectors were regarded as persons of low status and social standing. They were not government employees, strictly speaking, but private contractors whose income was a percentage of the revenue they collected. They were regularly accused of squeezing more than their share from the cash-strapped population of Judea.

What’s worse is that after tax collectors had taken their cut, even if it was their fair share, the rest of the money went not into funding public services, but into the coffers of the Roman Empire. Taxes were the fuel that kept the engine of the oppressive empire running. Roman historian Tacitus tells us what happened when the emperor Nero tried to implement a tax cut: “As a consequence of repeated demands from the public, which complained of the exactions of the revenue-farmers, Nero hesitated whether he ought not to decree the abolition of all indirect taxation and present the reform as the noblest of gifts to the human race. His impulse, however, after much preliminary praise of his magnanimity, was checked by his older advisers, who pointed out that the dissolution of the empire was certain if the revenues on which the state subsisted were to be curtailed” (Tacitus, The Annals, 13.50).

Tacitus describes the tax collectors, about whom the public complained as “revenue farmers,” a realistic description of how the imperial tax system worked, by outsourcing revenue collection to private contractors who often pocketed too much of the cash harvested on Caesar’s behalf. In Judea, the low social standing of such “revenue farmers” also had a lot to do with their complicity in the exploitation of their own people, draining wealth from the local economy.

Came to Call the Sinners

Yet, Jesus shows a surprising predilection for tax collectors, especially in Luke’s Gospel, an inclination that raises eyebrows in consternation and leads people to ask: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Never at a loss for words, Jesus says, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners” (Luke 5:30-32). In fact, Jesus welcomed a tax collector into His innermost circle, calling a man named Levi (according to Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27), who also went by the name of Matthew (according to Matthew 9:9) and choosing him as one of the 12 Apostles.

Luke’s Gospel also introduces us to the tax collector named Zacchaeus, who climbs a sycamore tree because he won’t let his short stature keep him from getting a look at Jesus. That perch gets him noticed by Jesus, who calls out, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” (Luke 19:5). That unexpected visit causes the crowd to murmur about the bad company Jesus keeps. But Zacchaeus stood his ground, telling Jesus, “Half my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” For Jesus, this meant mission accomplished: “Today salvation has come to this house…for the Son of Man has come to seek and save what was lost” (Luke 19:8-10).

The tax collector of this Sunday’s parable is set in striking contrast with someone whose reputation in the first century would have been much better than in the 21st century. Many today would not take kindly to being labeled a Pharisee. While in the Gospels they are often a target for allegations of scrupulousness with respect to trivial matters, and hypocrisy with regard to things that really matter, the polemical character of those accusations should not prevent us from recognizing that the Pharisees had a reputation for being serious about living the daily quest for faithfulness to God’s covenant. On top of that, Jesus Himself felt comfortable enough to dine in their homes, taking the opportunity to engage in serious – and sometimes heated – discussions.

Study in Contrasts

The parable in this Sunday’s Gospel is a study in contrasts: between a figure who enjoyed a good reputation and a figure whose social standing earned him the worst of reputations. For the earliest audiences, the outcome would have been startling. The Pharisee does the right things: fasting, tithing and avoiding greed, dishonesty and adultery. The tax collector has nothing to advance on his own behalf, pleading instead, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

It is this loser in the eyes of his fellow Judeans who goes home justified, that is, in right relationship with God, acutely conscious of how much he must put his trust in God’s unfailing mercy. In this Year of Mercy and always, that’s the sort of company we should all want to keep.

Readings for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18

Psalm 34: 2-3, 17-18, 19, 23

2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18

Luke 18: 9-14


Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.