Pagans & Tax Collectors

In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus gives instructions on how to handle sin in the Church. There’s a method, and it’s pretty simple: You give the guy multiple chances to understand that he has gone astray, starting with the most discreet options, but eventually bringing in the teaching authority of the Church herself if necessary.

And what if he refuses to listen even to the Church? Jesus says this:

“Treat him as you would a Pagan, or a tax collector”.

And that’s the process.

The first steps are pretty straightforward, though maybe not real popular. Since it involves you personally, refraining from gossip and instead pulling on the grown-up suit and figuring out how you are going to convince someone else what is right and wrong. With the actual goal of persuading the person to repent and reform, instead of the much more self-gratifying goal of venting your anger and maybe getting in a few good digs while you’re at it.

[Remember: If the guy doesn’t listen to you, then you’re supposed to go get other members of the church to come help persuade. And you know those other members are going to ask about how the first conversation went. So you better not have said something really mean and stupid.  Yeah, I know. No one really likes this passage. I’m so much better at “mean and stupid” than “charitable and helpful”.]

But let’s skip ahead to the unrepentant sinner – which includes a subset, the unrepentant dissenter. This is the part hand-rubbing pundits love, because you get to pull out the big guns. You maintained composure through all those edifying discussions, and now, now!, finally!, you get to give the guy what he deserves and Treat Him Like A Pagan. Or a tax collector. Your choice.

When I see editorial on this passage, what I often see is the Freaked Out Jesus Method* of biblical interpretation. We, the readers, see words like “sinner” “Pagan” and “tax collector”, and we insert BAD, BAD, and BAD. And if Bad then Mad, right? So we picture Jesus: Impatient with sinners, ready to toss transgressor outta the church, and here’s how to get rid of ‘em, make sure you do the job thoroughly. Don’t be Mr. Nice Guy, apostles and disciples, or Jesus will be Mad at YOU too.

Except that Jesus doesn’t actually treat Pagans and tax collectors this way. What does Jesus do for Pagans and tax collectors? He invites them to dinner. He heals their sick. He praises what faith they have. He invites them take of the Living Water.

In summary: Jesus evangelizes.

That’s the method. If one of your brothers sins against you, and he won’t listen to the Church, try to win him back.


There is a sting, though, in this instruction. And here is where I think the courage of the Church fails most.

See, everybody wants to stay “catholic”.

It’s pretty funny, really. None of my Pagan or tax-collector friends are upset about not being Catholic. They don’t sit around stewing and accusing the Church of cruelty on account of how Pagans aren’t Catholic and Catholics aren’t Pagans. Everyone fully grasps the notion that there are things you have to be willing to believe and do if you want to be Catholic, and well, if you wanted to do and think such things, you wouldn’t be Pagan.

But unrepentant and dissenting Christians often are resentful of the notion that they have left the bounds of the fold of the Church.

Regular Pagans recognize the authority of the Church over its members, and choose not to be part of that Church. Dissenters want to be counted as part of the Church, but without recognizing that the Church has an authoritative teaching office that Christians need obey.

—-> For all the noise about ‘closed communion’, I’ve never once had a non-catholic friend be upset about it, after I explained why we did things how we do. No sane person wants to be publicly labeled as “believes in the Real Presence” and “accepts the teachings of the Church”, if they don’t actually believe such things. Catholic doctrine is, you know, a little crazy, huh? Would you want to have walked around New York in 1750 with a big stamp on your head that said “Thinks Humans Can Fly”??. Until you knew for sure that hot-air balloons worked, you wouldn’t want the crazy-label. Once you knew, you’d be proud of it. But until then, no.

In contrast, dissenting Catholics cling to their ‘rights’ with bitter furor. Try to tell a formerly-Catholic hospital** or college that they need to quit claiming Catholicism now that they’ve quit teaching and practicing Catholicism . . . and the drama . . . oh my goodness the drama.

The scandal isn’t that this or that person or institution is non-Catholic.

My local county hospital isn’t Catholic, my State U alma mater isn’t Catholic, and most of friends are not Catholic. Pagans and tax collectors all of them. For the longest time, I was even married to one of these people. (He seems to have come out of it.  Yay!) No drama necessary.

Jesus isn’t freaking out. He wants every one back into the Church, and He’ll do any good thing to make that happen. Have you to dinner, heal your servant, die on the cross for you – there is no limit to His mercy.

But the Gospels do tell us this: Don’t be crazy.

Sane people know what they do and don’t believe.

If someone has ceased to believe and practice the Catholic faith, put your head on straight and acknowledge the fact. Non-Catholics and former-Catholics are no scandal. Open wide your arms and give whatever you legitimately can to help and befriend.

Bad Catholics? No surprise there, we announce our sinfulness at every Mass. Forgive us seventy-times-seven times, and remind us in no uncertain terms what the Church really teaches. Accept our repentance, over and over and over again.

But fake Catholics? That is scandal and madness.

Turn on your brain, and respectfully acknowledge the former Catholic has stepped outside the fold. You can’t welcome someone back into the house, if you are busy pretending they’ve never gone out.




 * See two posts below for an explanation of the FOJM.  WordPress refuses to let me make links today.

**Ack, I hate link failure.  Here’s a great piece on the current round of Catholic hospital scandals: