How I Got to Know Tax Collectors and Prostitutes

Brian Flanagan

Today’s scriptural reflection is from Brian Flanagan, an Associate Professor of Theology at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. Brian’s research focuses on ecclesiology, liturgical theology, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. His recent book is entitled Stumbling in Holiness: Sin and Sanctity in the Church. As an undergraduate student at Catholic University, Brian was an intern at New Ways Ministry from 1996-1999, and he now serves on New Ways Ministry’s Advisory Board.

Today’s liturgical readings can be found by clicking here.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the story of a parent with two children, and the difference between what we say and what we do, between our refined words and our often more fraught actions. He concludes by warning his listeners, the educated leaders of his people, with the frustration of a teacher whose students aren’t getting it, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you!”

I live in Washington, D.C., so, even if I don’t know any tax collectors, I’ve met more than a few people who work for the Internal Revenue Service. But, as a gay man, perhaps more than some of my fellow Catholics, I’ve also met a fair number of prostitutes. I mean that both in the literal sense of commercial sex workers, and in the more metaphorical sense of the non-churched, the non-religious or anti-religious, who in their self-awareness of their gifts and limitations are deeply grateful for the mercy of God. Having my own expectations that being “religious” or “respectable” automatically means being “good” and “loved by God” blasted apart is one of the greatest graces I’ve received as a gay Catholic, and perhaps might be the gift that the wider LGBTQ+ community can continue to offer to the church as a whole.

I want to be clear on two points, first, I don’t want any of this to be construed as legitimizing or overlooking the painful realities of exploitation and human trafficking often connected with prostitution; we should continue to rage against the fact that vulnerable women, men, and children are often dragged into sex work by deception, economic necessity, and physical and sexual abuse. Second, we shouldn’t romanticize sex work or sex workers, or paper over the hardships of their lives with a myth of the “hooker with a heart of gold” that we find recurring in popular culture to justify or mitigate forms of exploitation.

            But given that caveat and call for continued action, I want to think about the way being gay has allowed me to meet a whole group of people whom I otherwise would have missed or misjudged had my trajectory never been diverted by my sexuality. I grew up in a comfortable, but not wealthy, suburban White family, went to Catholic schools from kindergarten through my PhD, studied political theory and philosophy and eventually theology. The stage was set for me to marry, have children, move to a similar suburban area, and work for the Catholic Church in some capacity. But in the different direction my life moved, I’ve met people whom I never would have encountered on that first path: lots of LGBTQ+ people, some wealthier people and some poorer people, some people in recovery and some who might get there eventually, some people in academia or medicine and some people who work construction or wait tables, some “notorious sinners” and, yes, some prostitutes. Not as a client, to be clear, but queer spaces like bars, LGBTQ+ sports leagues and clubs, and other social networks are places in our society that sometimes still cut across the walls of race and class, of religiosity and respectability, that define and constrain us. Not always successfully – especially around race, and especially around gender, LGBTQ+ spaces can also be oppressive, constraining, or unjust. But sometimes, thanks to the blessing of being LGBTQ+, Catholic theologians and sex workers can end up at the same bar, show up at the same party, run in the same running club, or march in the same Pride parade.

I’ve learned two things from hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes and other “sinners.” First, like Jesus, I learned to know them as individuals and to be with them as and how they were – sometimes their best selves, and sometimes not, sometimes deeply charitable and giving, and sometimes selfish, sometimes kind and sometimes cruel. As human beings, in other words, and therefore as beloved of God and deserving of love. Other people, like Jesus, were able to do that on their own initiative; for me, being gay was a providential push outside of my own comfort zone, into learning how to accept and be accepted by people who were very different than me.

And secondly, and more importantly, I learned from my friends who are “tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners” that I am one of them. Like the religious leaders in today’s Gospel, it would have been easy – it still is relatively easy – to hide my own selfishness and cruelty and “impurity” under a veneer of respectability and righteousness. The reason Jesus is so worried about them, about us who study theology or lead parishes or teach catechesis (or read religion blogs in our spare time…) is how easy it is to confuse respectability with righteousness, to confuse outward allegiance to Christ with inner faith, hope, and love. And yes, we all have room to grow–some of us in some areas more than others This is not a call to give up on growth, on confession of sin, or on our need for conversion. But, as Pope Francis has forcefully taught us, the name of God is mercy, and our life in Christ is to receive that mercy, and then to go on to be that loving mercy for others.

LGBTQ+ Catholics have experienced that mercy in sometimes strange ways and unexpected places – in churches and monasteries, yes, but also at drag shows and happy hours and Pride festivals. We have some experience of forgiving and being forgiven, and of loving and being loved in ways that might seem scandalous to others. And we have known those who, like the first son in today’s Gospel, outwardly reject God or the Church, often with good reason given their experiences, and yet incarnate the reign of God in their Christ-like love for their neighbors. Jesus asks us today to share those experiences with our fellow Catholics, to perhaps be the “tax collectors and prostitutes” who help them see their own need for mercy, and to point out with joy out the surprising places where people are already entering the reign of God. In doing that we will be like the first child in the story who, like the Christ we follow, went out to the vineyard to do God’s will.

Brian Flanagan, Marymount University, September 27, 2020

3 replies
  1. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    The listeners in the gospel story were shocked that Jesus asked, who did the will of the father, rather than, who showed honor to the father because honor/shame is THE primary, foundational cultural value. So Jesus is again teaching that repentance, metanoia, change of heart is key.

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