Sunday, September 10, 2017

Publicans: A Sunday Rumination

     “But if thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother. And if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more: that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may stand. And if he will not hear them: tell the church. And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican.
     “Amen I say to you, whatever you shall bind upon earth shall be bound also in heaven. And whatsoever you shall loose upon earth shall be loosed also in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you shall consent upon earth concerning anything whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by my Father who is in heaven. For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” [Matthew 18:15-20, Douay-Rheims translation]

     Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, which is quoted in full above, gets insufficient attention from contemporary Christians. I find in it an important echo of the following passage from Luke:

     And the people asked him [John the Baptist], saying: What then shall we do? And he answering, saying to them: He that hath two coats, let him give to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do in like manner. And the publicans came also to be baptized and said to him: Master, what shall we do? But he said to them: Do nothing more than that which is appointed you. And the soldiers also asked him, saying: And what shall we do? And he said to them, Do violence to no man, neither calumniate any man, and be content with your pay. [Luke 3:10-14, Douay-Rheims translation. Emphasis added]

     Remember that John the Baptist and Jesus Christ came to the Jews during the Roman occupation of Judea. Rome’s tax collectors -- publicans -- went among the Jews demanding that they pay into Rome’s coffers. The publicans were routinely accompanied on their rounds by Roman soldiers, there to compel payment.

     The Jews of Judea could not resist the might of Rome. He who tried usually died on the spot, his life reaped by a Roman soldier’s blade. Yet the soldier was not the principal focus of Judean resistance. Rather, it was the publican, often an unassuming, completely unarmed figure, who drew their odium. The publican came to represent to them all that was worst about being an occupied nation. That soldiers stood behind him, ready to enforce his exactions, was merely an unpleasant detail.

     As there was no point in resisting, the Jews merely paid the publican what he demanded. Then as now, a man capable of compelling payment under the threat of punishment often went beyond “that which is appointed you.” He would demand more than the assessed levy, and – of course – would keep the excess. Few Jews dared to call him on it; it was too likely to result in decapitation.

     Thus, to treat a man “as the heathen and publican” was understood to mean have no more to do with him than is absolutely necessary. In effect, the publican was ostracized by Judean society. His sole companions were the soldiers who followed him on his rounds...but in the usual case, the soldiers held him in contempt as well, for what soldier admires a man who needs the threat of violence effectuated by others to enforce his will?

     When John the Baptist instructed the freshly baptized publicans to “Do nothing more than that which is appointed you,” he was telling them not to use the power they wielded to extort the Jews. As the publican was a Roman civil servant – then as now, a “civil servant” was normally neither civil nor servile – he could not disobey the orders his superiors had given him. He had to return to them with the tax levy they had charged him to collect, or his position, and possibly his life, would be forfeit. In his own way he was as helpless before the martial power of Rome as were the Jews he taxed. He might not receive sympathy, but in recognition of their mutual vulnerability they paid him what he demanded, that neither his nor their blood might be spilled.

     Over and over, I am amazed and humbled by the absolute consistency of Christ’s teachings with the “natural” ethics our consciences prescribe for us. He asked very little of us. Given His stature among those who followed Him, He could have demanded that they proclaim Him a temporal rather than an eternal King, build him a palace, and abase themselves utterly before Him. They would almost surely have given Him anything He wished...yet all He ever asked was bodily sustenance for His time among men. He demanded only that we love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves: the two Great Commandments on which “dependeth all the law and the prophets.”

     Not one word from His lips exceeds that prescription, which leads us to a pair of travesties: first, that clerics of all stripes should have gone so far beyond His teachings in their demands; second, that so few have bothered to know Him from His recorded words, rather than from the thunderings of assorted priests, ministers, and other exploiters who seek to “do a corner” in Him.

     A modicum of thought is required of us to obey the Commandments in full. For example, “Thou shalt do no murder” encompasses the prohibition of aggressive violence short of murder, for any blow one strikes could easily lead to the death of one’s adversary. Similarly, “Thou shalt not steal” encompasses the prohibition of fraud. But these are conclusions easily reached by any mind capable of simple reason.

     In particular, our treatment of the “publicans” of our time and place should be much like that of the Judeans of Christ’s time: have no more to do with them than absolutely necessary. They can compel payment. They can sometimes compel submission to their whims. But they cannot compel us to like them, nor to associate with them, nor to hold them in any degree of esteem.

     So also must our attitude be toward those who seek to impose their religious creeds on the rest of us by force. Do not condemn them – that’s God’s privilege alone – but grant them nothing beyond the absolute, inescapable minimum...and beyond that, I think I need say no more.

     May God bless and keep you all.

No comments: