Kim Davis is Not a Tax Collector

Of course he met with her! Jesus meets with everybody. The guy even met with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus is tolerant and inclusive of everyone! So what if he met with Kim Davis?

Todd VanDerWefff, writing for Vox, made a similar argument his article Of course Pope Francis met with Kim Davis. Jesus would have, writing,

“But Christianity, at its core, is about the idea of Jesus being willing to meet with anybody in his society and about the idea of anybody being worthy of love, both from us and from God. Jesus broke bread with anybody who would have him. He took disciples from all walks of life. He was pals with a former prostitute.”

VanDerWerff makes the same mistakes so many of us do whenever we speak about Jesus, or really any historical figure that we hold dear. We confuse “the right thing to do” with “what Jesus did”. They’re easily confused. Being willing to meet everyone may be “the right thing to do”. Jesus may have even always done “the right thing”. But it does not follow that Jesus was always willing to meet with everyone. Our modern value of inclusiveness may be right, but it holds no bearing on a world 2,000 years ago, under different conditions, with different problems and different assumptions. And there’s that little problem that:

Jesus didn’t meet with everybody. He didn’t invite everybody. He wasn’t inclusive of everybody.

And Kim Davis is not a tax collector.

First, it’s bible nerd time! Lazy interpreters and those who want to use the person of Jesus to advance your own positions, now is your time to leave.

Jesus first encounters and is opposed by the scribes and the Pharisees in Mark chapter 2 in a series of events concerning healing, table fellowship, fasting, and Sabbath regulations. His confrontation with the scribes and the Pharisees is a direct result of his actions of cleansing the leper in 1:40-45.

In what is often misinterpreted as a simple healing story, Jesus’s actions directly challenge the authority of the priests and direct the hearer of the story to righteous anger. If one reads the story, as is traditionally interpreted, as a simple healing story, independent of the following events in the narrative, one only comes away with the conclusion that Jesus is a magician capable of miraculously healing people unfortunate enough to contract leprosy. The “Jesus is magic” interpretation is exactly what modern non-Christians hear when we read this text. And it’s exactly what they hear when we interpret it. We have no adequate response to the “Jesus is magic” criticism, not because the the criticism is false or unfair, but because “Jesus is magic” is an accurate depiction of our interpretation and we have chosen, miraculously I might add, to become blind to it. We have convinced ourselves that Jesus healing a leper, independent of other events in the text and its historical context, has deeper meaning other than, “Jesus is magic; he can heal people.” It doesn’t.

The traditional interpretation and its modern critique fail to account for the story’s narrative location (appearing directly before the series of challenges by scribes and Pharisees) and it fails to account for Jesus’s apparent anger. If Jesus is just a magician (or miracle worker as Christians like to say), then why is he angry? Why does he run and hide after the man healed of leprosy, disobeys Jesus’s demand not to tell anyone? Why would Jesus tell the man to keep it a secret, if after all, Jesus was just a healer of which there were many in the ancient world?

In 1:40, the leper does not asked to be healed. He states, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Healers heal people. They don’t make them clean. Being “made clean” is a social function, which according to the Torah and the tradition of the people can only occur through the actions of a priest. Even if a person has no signs of leprosy and is miraculously healed, they must be declared clean by the priests or else they are unable to rejoin their community. The leper not only has to live with the unfortunate reality of the skin disease, but he must live outside the community, away from his family, away from his land. No one can touch him. Anything he touches is also unclean.

In response to the desperate man the text states, “Moved with pity (or anger), Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’”. A couple notes: First, the word for pity does not occur in all ancient sources for the Mark 1: 41. Other manuscripts state “Moved with anger”. I accept anger as the correct interpretation as it better fits with the literary context. A number of other prominent scholars accept it as the original reading as well. Second, Jesus touches him. Jesus should, according to the law, now be ritually unclean. The text tells us the opposite happens, “the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.” Third, Jesus doesn’t just heal him. He declares him clean. Jesus usurps the authority of the priests and declares the man clean. (Hint: this pisses off the priests, the scribes and the Pharisees thus attracting their attention in the following series of events. Otherwise, you would have to assume that the scribes show up and find Jesus simply by coincidence.)

Here comes more anger. “After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to (or against) them.” The NRSV, once again, softens Jesus’s words. The term for “sternly warning” can also be translated as “be indignant”, “scold”, “censure”, “to be angry”, “to rebuke” or as Ched Myers writes, “snorting with indignation”. Myers claims that “(It) only make sense if the man has already been to the priests, who for some reason had rejected his petition…The cleansed leper’s task is not to publicize a miracle but to help confront an ideological system. (Myers, Binding the Strong Man p. 153)”

His anger isn’t directed to the leper. It’s certainly not at the leprosy itself, as some have claimed in ridiculous fashion (seriously? Jesus is angry at leprosy?). He’s angry at the priests. He’s angry that a leper must spend his life away from his family. He’s angry that the sick, dispossessed, and disinherited are abandoned, by necessity, from the only support system they can ever have. He’s angry at the Torah, and more specifically, angry at the great tradition of the Torah centered on the values of the elites in Jerusalem which is foreign to the little tradition of the people of Galilee (to explain, the Torah wasn’t exactly a unified document at the time. And it isn’t even accurate to claim that the people of Galilee and the people of Jerusalem followed the same religion. Even if the religion was one and the documents were unified, most common people couldn’t read anyway and would not have access to written documents. What they shared is a religious tradition of Moses, Elijah and the prophets. But the specifics varied widely and the elites attempted, repeatedly, to control and use the tradition for their personal, financial and political benefit. To this, Jesus “snorts with indignation.”)

The former leper does not follow Jesus’s warning to go before the priests, and make his offering as a testimony against them. He runs to town, skips the priests, tells everyone what happened. Unsurprisingly, the first thing he does is celebrate with his friends and family. As a runaway priest, I can certainly echo the sentiment of the former leper – who needs priests anyway? Myers is right to say, “Jesus is now a marked man, considered unclean in the city due to his contact with the leper. This first symbolic action of healing thus sets the tone for Jesus’ campaign: liberation provokes conflict. (Myers, 154)”

You don’t just usurp the power of the priests and get away with it. The liberated may celebrate when they are healed and returned to community, but those whose social and political position is dependent on the very fact that only they are allowed to return people to community, aren’t going to like it very much. After Jesus heals the leper, Jesus had to retreat to the country away from the towns and the villages. He fears for his life.

The preceding story will be repeated in various forms over the next chapter: An outcast begs for Jesus’s mercy both physically and socially, Jesus goes beyond what is asked to the amazement of others, Jesus’s acts of healing and forgiving debts exposes the religious/political establishment as unjust, religious/political leaders confront Jesus, Jesus exposes their commitment to an unjust system rather than to the people.

If we read the story of Jesus cleansing the leper through this lens, it ceases to be “Jesus is magic”. It also illuminates the actions of the scribes, Pharisees and priests. If Jesus was only a healer/magician, there would be no reason why he would attract attention from religious/political elite. But if he is challenging the religious, political and social order, as God repeatedly does throughout the Hebrew Bible, then they will oppose him.

Running quickly through the next few stories. Jesus is sitting in a home in Capernaum and the people are crowded inside to see him. Apparently the former leper’s story caught some attention. The house is so full that friends of a paralyzed man could not get him inside. So they climbed on top of the house, dug through the ceiling and lowered him down to Jesus. Jesus declares the man’s sins forgiven. The scribes just so happen to be inside the house – the former leper’s story really caught some attention! They accuse him of blasphemy. This is the first and last charge against Jesus in the Gospel of Mark as it is the same charge used against him by the religious/political elites before his crucifixion.

But notice that Jesus hasn’t yet healed him of his paralysis. He’s forgiven the man’s sins, something that yet again, only a priest can do. Jesus usurps the power of the priests and this time, he does so in public in full view of the scribes. The scribes consider him a blasphemer in their hearts. Jesus presses the issue publicly exposing their thoughts. No honest reader of the text can assume that the scribes are genuinely concerned with the man’s sins or the theological truth that “Who can forgive but God alone?” They’re doing what priests and religious persons often do, they use overly pious statements to defend themselves and their own social power. When they say “Who can forgive but God alone?”, they are not genuinely concerned with God, with the man, or with the nature of sin. They are concerned with themselves. Ask yourself, when defenders of Pope Francis say, “Jesus met with sinners and tax collectors” in reference to the Pope’s meeting with Kim Davis, are they concerned with the inclusiveness of the pope, with the the sinner and the social outcast, or are they concerned with justifying a figure they ideologically support? Or perhaps just smoothing over the controversial actions of a controversial pope of whom they have used to justify their own positions and beliefs? When the Pope met with Kim Davis, were her supporters happy that a religious figure gave encouragement and a blessing to a Christian caught between her legal and moral duties, or were they happy that the Pope’s visit gave credibility to their cause?

Jesus doesn’t back down from the scribes when they accuse him in their hearts of blasphemy and he doesn’t stop with exposing their hypocrisy. He presses the issue and shames them. He doesn’t just forgive the man. He tells him to pick up his mat and walk. The man stands up and walks away. How do the scribes look in front of all these people now? Belittling and shaming is exactly Jesus’s intention.

Dangerous question: Is Jesus’s (or Mark’s) concern here with the paralytic man and all his pain and struggle, or like the scribes, is it with his own social power? Remember, Jesus does not heal the man until he escalates the conflict with the scribes who by this point in the text have kept their concerns with Jesus to themselves. I don’t think the point of the story is pity or mercy for a paralytic man or a leper. And it certainly isn’t about “Jesus is magic”. These confrontations are about power. They are about politics. They are about who can shame who and who can make who look like a fool. The stakes of this game are life and death, as the Gospel ultimately shows. The scribes don’t care about the paralytic man and the leper. They care about the status quo. They want to defend it. I think Jesus cares about the paralytic man and the leper, but more than individual mercy, Jesus wants to tear down a system that sentences people to lives of shame and hopelessness. He cares more about the politics and the economics than an individual suffering from it. And he wants to humiliate those who continue to profit from the system being upheld. But maybe I’m biased and Jesus (or Jesus as depicted in Mark) is just as guilty as the Pharisees.

The story repeats itself in verse 13. Jesus goes out beside the sea. The people crowd around him. He teaches. While walking he sees Levi son of Alphaeus at the tax booth and tells him, “Follow me.” Levi leaves his booth and follows Jesus.

Levi is a tax collector. The local Galileans live under a multitude of complicated and burdensome taxes. They’re taxed by the Romans. They’re taxed by the Herodians. They were supposed to pay tithes to the temple. The Romans and the Herodians collected their taxes by force. The people had little left on which to live. The temple, who only a few years prior had political authority over the Galilee until the death of King Herod, was left to collect tithes by persuasion. The people rarely could pay. The temple responded to their lack of payment of tithes due to being economically ruined by the state, not by pressing for lower taxes to their oppressors or by being merciful to them due to their economic peril. The temple responded by condemning them (Herzog, Jesus Justice and the Reign of God. 123). A suffering, impoverished, despondent people were condemned by the temple for being poor.

A tax collector like Levi was something akin to a customs official. They collected tariffs on goods, transportation taxes, and the like. Myers claims, “The toll collectors’ widespread reputation for dishonesty, and the fact that they were bureaucratic representatives of the oppressive political-economic order, meant that they were a shunned cast in Judaism, even to the point of often being denied basic civil rights.” (Myers 157). Levi is the type of person who profits off economically exploiting peasants. The Romans liked to use locals for this purpose because they were more effective at collecting taxes and because it established a buffer between the Roman overseers and the angry local population. Levi was right to be shunned and vilified. He’s the exact type of person that we would assume Jesus humiliates and shames. Yet Jesus asks Levi to follow him. He goes to Levi’s house. He eats at his table, surrounded by sinners.

Previously Jesus was only defending and honoring sinners forced into their isolation and hopelessness through disease and economic oppression. Now he is associating with a tax collector, the very person who is profiting off of and (partly) responsible for their economic destitution. The scribes object, and understandably so. “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

The question makes sense. Just what is Jesus doing? If the traditional interpretation of the healing stories, “Jesus is magic”, is true, then Jesus’s actions make no internal sense in the narrative. But, if the two previous healing stories are primarily political-economic, as I have argued, then the concern is about both the individual in question, and the system that traps people in social and religious isolation. The system traps the leper in to isolation by forcing him to live outside of community – a fate that literally means death in ancient agrarian economies. The system traps the paralytic into isolation by robbing his community of the necessary means to care for him through excessive taxation. Furthermore, the political-theology declares that his paralysis is a result of his sin, or if he had been born paralyzed, the result of his parents or ancestors’ sin. As a result, he is getting what he deserves. He will be hidden from the community out of shame by the family. You can still see this in many societies today where the blind, the deaf, the diseased, or those with various physical or mental disabilities are hidden away from public view out of shame and as a result do not receive the treatment and care that they need. The paralytic man’s friends lower him through the ceiling in front of Jesus for all to see. They make him public. Jesus forgives his sins (debts), restores him to physical and social standing in the community and shames the powerful.

The tax collector is victim to the same political-economic system. What would possess you to take a job like being a tax collector that would isolate you from everything and everyone you know? What would make you betray your friends, family and religion and make you cooperate with the very people who are destroying your country and your community? Some would say greed. I think that reveals more about those making the accusation than about Levi son of Alphaeus. He’s a tax collector because being a tax collector pays. There’s money in it. The only cost is everything else in his life. It costs his family, his friends, his standing before God, and even, as Myers argues, his basic civil rights. And once he becomes the tax collector and he is hopelessly alone, the only system of support he has is the oppressors themselves, and they will never accept him as one of their own.

He’s trapped. He’s isolated. Alone. Hopeless.

Jesus calls him. He eats at his house. He eats with Levi’s fellow sinners. He gives them dignity. He lets them be Jewish once again. He lets them be human. He restores Levi and the sinners to community. He gives them life. The scribes say, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” What is their motivation? They aim to shame Jesus. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Translation: Scribes, you’re not invited. Shame on you.

When Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, many of the Pope’s progressive defenders went through something like the 5 stages of grief. They denied that it happened, refusing to believe it. They were angry at the pope for the thought of meeting with such a person. They made excuses for the pope, “It wasn’t a real meeting!” “Jesus meets with everybody! He even met with tax collectors and sinners!” They were depressed and lost a little faith in the pope’s progressive credentials. And then they accepted that he was Catholic, views on sexuality and politics included. Perhaps they will come to accept that his views aren’t all that different from his predecessor who they loathed. He’s just a lot more likable and has a much better PR team. Any attempt to judge his motivations and his true intentions from afar are bound to fail. And any attempt to separate the good pope from the bad one or the good christian from the bad Christian, Kim Davis, reflect a very Pharisaic-like “identity through separation” (Myers, 157).

But the argument doesn’t hold that Jesus met with everyone. Nor does it hold that since he met with tax collectors and sinners that it is justifiable for the Pope to meet with and bless Kim Davis, giving respectability and authority to her sad, illegal crusade. Kim Davis may be a sinner, but she’s not a tax collector. Unlike the tax collector she’s not profiting off the misery of others. She’s not socially isolated. She isn’t separated from her community or her friends or her family. Her act of civil disobedience had exactly the opposite effect. Her community grew larger. It galvanized them to her.

I believe that Kim Davis, along with a number of faith leaders, civil officials and regular people, while not biblical tax collectors, do live in an analogous circumstance. The landowners and the Romans who trap people like Levi, rely on the fact that those like Levi are trapped to retain power. Not only are they economically dependent, they will never be welcomed home – the only other economy in which they can ever participate. The people who are victimized as a result, are angry at the trapped tax collector like Levi and the landowners and politicians are shielded from the peasant’s anger. If they become desperate enough to remove the tax collector, a new economic opportunity will arise for anyone who needs a stable income – and every economically desperate person needs a stable income. Kim Davis, and those who believe as she does, are not likewise economically and socially trapped, but they have been used. And they cannot go back.

Politicians have discovered that politicizing Christian marriage is an effective strategy to get elected and receive donations. National, state and local elections have pitted individuals, communities and churches against each other over a largely unnecessary controversy: who does the state allow to be officially recognized as married and what economic, political and legal benefits can they receive by being recognized as such? The bible has nothing to do with answering this question and any attempt to make its contents fit into this modern controversy has the exact same interpretive merit as does the attempt to justify the Pope’s visit with Kim Davis by claiming “Jesus met with tax collectors and sinners” – none. The same state, who conservatives fear has grown too powerful, has been given the authority to define the social institution of marriage and to administer political, economic and legal rights to persons of its choosing and in accordance with its rules. The regulations concerning marriage, who progressives fear has denied the marriage rights to many, has only become more entrenched in law and society while still denying marriage rights to other minority groups. The controversy is unnecessary. We have been conned. We’ve been used. We cannot go back.

This controversy has been framed in near apocalyptic language: “the downfall of civilization” and “the breakdown of the family” while each side has been demonized as bigots, heretics and sinners. It has divided families and communities. It has split churches and religious associations. Once you pick a side, or even if you don’t, and you’re called a bigot or a heretic or homophobic or a fake Christian, you cannot go back. Churches hire pastors based on their answer to this question. Ministers are appointed based on their answer to this question. People attend churches based on their answers to the question. People vote based on politicians’ answers to this question. We’re trapped. We can’t go back. Pharisaic identity by separation rules the state and it rules the church.

Kim Davis is not a tax collector, at least not as presented in the Gospel of Mark, but maybe we could treat her like one. She could be identified as such, if only the rest of us acted like Jesus. We wouldn’t just meet with her, as Jesus didn’t just meet with tax collectors and sinners. We could welcome her into homes and our community. We could give her options outside of a job in which she feels she can no longer morally perform. She could be given dignity. She could be given an identity outside of the controversy which has left her trapped and cut off from so many others. She could be human again. She could be Christian again. And so could we.

I think that any two consenting adults willing to undertake the responsibilities of Christian marriage should be invited to celebrate the marriage ritual in the church regardless of sex or gender. I think that the very real and important restrictions on same gender sexual activity in the Bible should be read, studied and embraced. I think that these restrictions are important and meaningful in the text’s political and economic context. I think that these restrictions protected the most vulnerable in society and were to the society’s benefit at the time of the text’s composition. I think that the political and economic order has radically changed and that the reasons for these restrictions no longer apply. I think that continuing these restrictions is harmful to the church, to society and particularly to the vulnerable.

You disagree? Then treat me like a tax collector. I would love to be invited over for dinner!



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