Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
If you have been following the St. Paul trash collection debacle? Controversy? Issue? Not sure what we’re calling it these days. But if you’ve been following along and trying to sort out truth from fiction about a yes vote or a no vote, it is very complicated and nearly impossible to know exactly how this will play out, regardless of the vote’s outcome. One thing I have heard, however, is both sides leveling the claim that if the other side wins, taxes will go up. And while many people vehemently disagree about whether to vote No or Yes on the trash collection referendum, there does seem to be agreement that no one wants to see their taxes go up. Taxes, blergh!
How much more though in Jesus’ time under Roman occupation did the Jews disdain tax collectors. The Romans would often enlist locals to do the work of collecting taxes for the Roman government. There were few checks and balances so it was easy to level charges of corruption and extortion against tax collectors and for them to get away with it. But more than these ethical aspects, it was the feeling among the Jews that those who were collecting taxes for the Romans were traitors. How could you help this imperialist power to profit off us? How could you betray your own kin, break commandments about extorting money from kin, carry out these crushing mandates for money?
From this angle, the Pharisee is actually the resistance. He is maintaining his religious and cultural rituals in spite of living under occupation. He is adhering to what is holy, striving to follow all the commandments still, and live a righteous life. Unlike this tax collector who is aiding and abetting the powers of empire. The sense of betrayal must have been palpable.
Thinking about that dynamic, the Pharisee’s sense of self-righteousness in the face of the tax collector’s siding with a power of cruelty and oppression, immediately called to mind a cookout we had once with our neighbors. None of us knew each other well, and as we talked, we began to ask one another what line of work each of us was in. Our neighbor—I’ll call her Amy—revealed that she worked for ICE, Immigration Customs and Enforcement. I felt a real sense of anger. How could you? The way they separate families, treat people like criminals. I held my tongue as she kept talking.
She had previously worked as an immigration para-legal and when they moved, this was the job she found. So every day she was a caseworker for individuals with deportation orders or awaiting immigration hearings. She described how soul-crushing and sad it was for her. To get through, she would just focus on the person in front of her: what can I do for this person in the time I have? Sometimes it would be getting them in touch with family, coaching them about what circumstances are viewed favorably by judges, or helping them get overdue medical procedures. So often, she said, the people she saw were in need of glasses, so she’d help them get glasses while they were in detention.
One man had glaucoma, could barely see, so she got him in to see an optometrist who was able to treat some of the symptoms and prescribe him some eye-drops. “They all have such heart-breaking stories,” Amy said.
I found myself feeling deeply ashamed at my snap judgment. She had her own family to support, kids to feed and raise. Clearly this was not her preferred work. Nor was she naïve about how harsh and inhumane the U.S. immigration system is more often than not.
We who tend towards the progressive end of the socio-political spectrum can often fall into the same trap as the Pharisee’s. It can lead to a strange chest-puffing contest of being “woker than thou,” more progressive and aware of injustice, racism, oppression. Rather than realize that we are all on the path seeking to be better humans, better Christians, better neighbors, those whose efforts fall short in our oh-so enlightened esteem can be the targets of ridicule.
We do need to have a sense of honesty and humility about our own short-comings, as the tax collector. It is a place from which we can grow. If we presume to know all there is to know, to be as justice-y as can be, we close ourselves off to what there is yet to learn about God and about our neighbors. We close ourselves off to change.
A couple years ago two good friends from seminary and I were doing a book group by Skype around racism and white supremacy in society and in church. All three of us are young white guys. At one point in one of our discussions, my dear friend David said: “We just have to be honest about the facts. I am a racist, we are racists. It is internalized in us as white people in a society that upholds whiteness.” I had never heard it put so bluntly or such a frank admission. Yet it did not come off as wallowing or self-pitying. It was not an admission that sat stuck in its own guilt. So too for us: our confession, our humility and honesty are not to crush us with guilt, but to energize us to act.
We need to avoid idolizing the tax collector’s self-injuring, self-destroying sense of how his faith was to be enacted in prayer. To beat himself in the presence of God, stand far off, feel this was his comeuppance or only route to God, this does not square with a God of grace and love, in whose sacred image we are created. It does not conform with an understanding of God who calls us into new place, to be transformed over and over again, always learning new ways to move and live in the love and justice of Jesus.
It is a middle way. Our course of faith must be one in which we have courage to admit our shortcomings without dwelling on them endlessly, and where our awareness of God’s grace keeps us from sneering down our nose at others whose circumstances are unknown to us and whose inner hearts are known only to God. This does not mean anything goes, nor does it mean any injustice or cruelty can be chalked up to “shrug, who knows.” It does mean that our own efforts must be tempered by grace and awareness of our own shortcomings, awareness that we too have blindspots in our thinking in our loving in our advocating for justice.
More so, however, is the word to us that there is an immensity of Grace in God that we cannot comprehend. Though we may fail (and we do, all of us do sometimes), Jesus is telling us that there is grace for reconciliation, for moving forward into change and transformation. God does not desire to see us stuck in shame and guilt, and in fact, God refuses to leave us there.
We do not know the full context of the tax collector’s life. We do not know, though we may hope, he found his way out of work for the Roman government and into some other line of work. Our neighbor eventually did quit her job with ICE and find work in a different field.
The possibility God opens up is that the Pharisee and Tax Collector can come together to be mutually transformed, that our own inner Pharisee and Tax Collector can find balance from one another and reconciliation, in a way that leads us into more honesty about who we are and with Grace abundant enough to stir up our hope and put that grace in action.