Today's Gospel in Art - The tax collector said: 'God, be merciful to me'

The Tax Collector, by Quinten Massys, late 1520s  © Liechtenstein Collection, Vaduz

The Tax Collector, by Quinten Massys, late 1520s © Liechtenstein Collection, Vaduz

Gospel of 27th October 2019 - Luke 18: 9-14

Jesus spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else: 'Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, "I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get." The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.'

Reflection on the Painting

Today's Flemish painting depicts a tax collector in his office, and a man paying his taxes (he is not looking too pleased!). How do we know the man on the left is a tax collector and not just an accountant for example. First of all, all the riches shown are a clue: money on the table, jewellery on the table and on the head-dress showing excess, a fur edged coat, but most importantly scholars have been able to identify what the man wrote in his book: the sequence of lines list excise receipts for wine, beer, fish, weigh-house (weghe in Flemish), market (halle), ferries (veren) etc… The activity therefore listed, is the business of tax farming. So the man holding the pen is a city tax official. The other man, looking straight at us, is in the uncomfortable position of being audited and he will have to pax his tax. Hence he is looking rather annoyed and pointing towards the book thinking 'do I have to pay this?'. He is seen holding an empty purse, whilst the official is counting the coins he gave him....

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Tags: Christian Art Today, Patrick van der Vorst, Tax Collector

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