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On the TableOn the Table

On the Table

Travis D. Smith discovers April is the surest month for taxes and tarts

Travis D. Smith
8 minute read

I recently heard a sermon parsing Matthew 5:38-48 that got me to thinking when I noticed that in picking apart that prickling passage, the pastor passed over Christ's snarky remark that even tax collectors know to love those who love them (5:46). How typical, I thought, in a liberal church in Canada, to save from critical inspection the federal agency that takes my money so that it may be squandered promiscuously all across our prodigious country, while giving everyone else a hard time. I've heard homiletics like this before. But it is April, which means it is tax season; and as much as we pride ourselves on universal health care and our great social programs, labelling ourselves a liberal people on account of them, and as much as we approve of expenditures on culture and the environment, not to mention sundry other subsidies and entitlements, and while we are right to expect that law and order shall be enforced and insist that our infrastructure shouldn't collapse, we still resent our governments — federal and provincial alike — this time of year and perversely take some pleasure in receiving a refund.

When teaching the love of our enemies, Jesus rhetorically relies on the universal human experience that tax collectors are bad guys in order to make His point. Of course, not even tax collectors are irredeemable. Indeed, Jesus scandalizes the Pharisees (in itself not much of a feat) by eating alongside tax collectors — amidst other sinners, too, but they're singled out as particularly repugnant — in order to show that God loves even them, if you can believe it.

In the context of a subjugated people within the Roman Empire, tax collectors are plainly villains who take from the relatively powerless in order to make the powerful more powerful still, resulting in the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, as the social justice crusader's mantric lament goes. (Worse, Rome did not lavish transfer payments upon the Palestinian provinces. Sacré bleu!) Furthermore, Jews were hired to collect taxes from other Jews on behalf of the Romans, making them traitors of sorts. A chief tax collector like Zacchaeus could do well for himself. Imagine that.

But consider this: in a democratic regime with representative institutions of governance such as ours today, where people are citizens rather than subjects, we have some say in and effect on the laws and policies enacted by government, and we authorize the State to impose and collect taxes so that it may try to do the jobs that we assign to it. Aren't we all, therefore, at least indirectly and metaphorically, tax collectors? Moreover, when their shares of the public expenditures from which they benefit are tallied up, some significant proportion of the population is more tax collector than taxpayer. Zacchaeus would probably envy how well many of us do on account of this arrangement. That said, whatever the libertarians say about taxation being indistinguishable from coercive confiscation or bondage, taxation is not exactly thievery or slavery — so long as everyone being so taxed can reasonably be said to have consented to the government, obliging them to abide by its laws. Next time you feel the urge to complain about paying taxes, first check the mirror for something in your own eye.

One thing that hasn't changed from ancient times, however, is the tendency of the powerful to use taxation as a way of increasing their power. We modern democrats don't like to be reminded of what Plato and Aristotle understood about the nature of democracy: it is the rule of the poor. What is more, the redistribution of wealth, predictably perpetrated upon the richer by the poorer, the latter being more powerful because more numerous, tends towards the impoverishment of society as a whole and the eventual loss of political and economic freedoms. Take a moment to remember the public debt. We're poorer than we think. And if there is a case to be made that we tax collectors are stealing from anyone, it is, of course, from the least powerful of all: those who have not yet been born and as such have not and cannot have consented. Supposing we do care about them, we merely proceed as if they would consent.

Now, just as Jesus does not require soldiers to stop being soldiers, He does not instruct tax collectors to stop being tax collectors. Presumably, so long as soldiers are not murderers, soldiering is an acceptable profession; same scenario with tax collecting, so long as it does not become stealing. At least that's my generous reading of the subject — although, from the parable of the lost sheep as recounted in Luke 15:1-7, one may infer that tax collecting is an inherently sinful occupation. Still, Jesus does not make a specific example of tax collectors by, say, instructing them directly to sin no more. The thing is, by Jesus' own standards, we are pretty much all adulterers (especially where I work, in downtown Montreal; have you seen the women here?) — and now, as I've indicated, we're all tax collectors, too. Fortunately, He is ready to forgive us all.

That said, I'm not convinced that, as tax collectors, we're ready to repent any time soon, or even beg for mercy, like the one at the temple in Luke 18:13. To his credit, at least he knows that he's a sinner. I know that I risk sounding like a big meanie, raising questions about the moral status of our commitment to the nationalized redistribution of wealth.

Most of us who clamour for it benefit from it more than we contribute to it, and then we fancy ourselves praiseworthy for being so considerate. As far as I can tell, giving unto Caesar was not prescribed as a substitute for charity. The impersonal mechanisms of a massive and distant State apparatus cannot love our neighbours for us. The earthly bread that its collections may procure is insufficient for them and us — although we should not ask or expect it to provide something more.

Do you remember whom Jesus lumps together with tax collectors? Harlots! (See Matthew 21:31-32. I once had to explain to a student in Montreal that this passage does not imply the salvific power of whoring. They do not escort themselves to paradise.) I would like to follow the Lord in this regard and say a few things about them, too. For centuries, tradition held that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, an idea popularized by Pope Gregory the Great that involved conflating her with the penitent woman of Luke 7:36-50 and Mary of Bethany, although the confusion predates him. The matter of her morals was settled authoritatively in '69 when the Siamese Marys were finally separated by the Second Vatican Council's liturgical procedures. So, Mary Magdalene isn't a whore — not anymore. It is, of course, good that we no longer engage in slut-shaming Christ's favourite gal pal. Slut-shaming is always bad, as the post-modern Marxist feminists (who are about as easy to scandalize as the Pharisees) tell us. It is, however, too bad that Jesus no longer hangs with a hooker.

When I hear it alleged that those who contrived and cemented this tradition of confusion did so in order to marginalize Mary Magdalene's significance among the disciples — and by association, all women within the Church — all as a part of the propaganda of patriarchy, I cannot help but regard this as too easy an explanation, too canned an accusation. It is not simply that I personally cannot use the word patriarchy except ironically — kind of like global, or subaltern — but rather, it is because I still think it makes sense, theologically, for the Lord's entourage to include a forgiven former prostitute. After all, we are all prostitutes of a sort, and not just the gold diggers, political hacks and intellectual or artistic sellouts among us. And contrary to what the old and unpleasant punk/funk song insinuates, it's not just under capitalism that we are all prostitutes, but rather everywhere, at any time, in this fallen world. We all accept payment or other perks for doing things we oughtn't. We all take money for doing things we should instead do for free, out of love. Again, it's a good thing the Lord is so forgiving.

Thus, it turns out, conceiving of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute de-stigmatizes that profession as a particularly sinful way of life. She becomes a representative of all mankind and not just women of ill repute. The depiction of her as a whore turns out to be so subversive of gender stereotypes that it is more radically feminist than the complaint that she shouldn't have been portrayed as one because, you know, patriarchy is bad. It brings home the fact that the male apostles are not her natural superiors as regards righteousness and sinfulness — as if they weren't fairly consistently portrayed as faithless dolts already. (Would that be calling them out, or an outcall?) The same free gift of salvation is offered to her that is offered to them. Plus, she serves as a model of spiritual transformation for all of humankind to admire and endeavour to emulate. I don't know if those early Church fathers who concocted this tradition had this metaphor in mind or if it is simply a happy coincidence, but I am prone to give them the benefit of the doubt.

One concession has to be made in light of historical context: The woman in Christ's coterie had to be the one that got elected to play the role of the prostitute. I can't imagine getting away with assigning the part of rent boy to one of the 12, no matter what sorts of indignities we might envision Judas Iscariot to be enduring in Satan's prison. That said, we can well understand the enthusiasm nowadays for the idea that Saint Paul was gay, maybe, though repressed; although if he weren't so celibate, there would be even more to celebrate.

Tax time, which coincides with Lent more than usual this year, gives us an opportunity to meditate on our behaviour with respect to working, earning, spending, selling, taking and giving. We might earnestly resolve to live otherwise than we do and pray for assistance in so striving. As I've argued in the pages of Convivium before, the most pernicious consequence of our tax rates and public largesse is the deleterious effect they have on charity — and I don't just mean with respect to the quantity of alms given but rather in terms of their effects on our motivation and opportunities to acquire the habits that cultivate the virtues of giving and receiving. We would rather be ungrateful takers masquerading as aggrieved benefactors than be good.

Even our sex workers today — under the protection of their intellectual activist advocates, madams of a more sophisticated sort — would like to persuade us that they provide a public service. When I mentioned that we are all prostitutes, it was hardly intended as a vindication or apology. However, thanks to our secular priesthood in the Supreme Court, prostitution's thoroughgoing normalization is imminent. The strumpets can join the rest of us whores in providing their customers with receipts, writing off their expenses, filing their tax returns, getting audited and paying their fair share. Then we can spend their hard-earned income on ourselves, too. That way we can all be pimps in addition to being adulterers, tax collectors and prostitutes. Verily, it will be a very practical arrangement.

Travis D. Smith

Travis D. Smith is Associate Professor of Political Science at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of Superhero Ethics (Templeton Press) and co-editor of Flattering the Demos (Lexington Books).

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