When I was a boy in Catholic school, I couldn’t help but notice, in the many Masses and religion classes I endured, that certain types of people in the Bible clearly suffered God’s disfavor. There were Sadducees and Pharisees, portrayed to me as blustering charlatans who were constantly testing and getting rebuked by Jesus.
And then there were the tax collectors, who got lumped in with drunkards, gluttons, and sinners. Jesus was said to have eaten with some of them, which the Pharisees made into a huge deal, as though he were enjoying a nice lunch with Martin Shkreli.
With tax collectors so obviously unrighteous, why did my father have to follow them into their disreputable line of work? And why declare it so loudly? At the back of the church bulletin each Sunday, I’d read, unhappily, the little ad my father placed to advertise his skill as, of all things, a tax collector. “Nugent Income Tax Service — Robert J. McVay” was how he termed it. How awful! Not only was he a tax collector, but he tried to spin it to sound as if he were doing people some kind of huge favor. When I asked him about this “service” of his, he concocted phraseology that cast a glowing light on himself: “Everyone has to file a tax return. I just help them do it.”
I was probably 8 or 9 years old when I first connected the despised tax collectors that I heard about in readings on Sundays to my seemingly mild-mannered jokester of a dad. His explanations were insufficient and difficult to understand, more rationalization than lucid vindication of his role in the evil system. I just wanted to put it out of mind, but one of my classmates kept razzing me about it in front of others, chanting in the boys’ lavatory: “Pat’s dad’s a tax collector, Pat’s dad’s a tax collector!” Other kids would look at me strangely, wondering what it was like to have a father whose line of work was actually identified in the Bible as unjust, because it enriched Rome and the tax-collecting publicans themselves with money exacted from poor Hebrews. You didn’t see the Bible saying anything about people working in HVAC or for Niagara Mohawk Power, like so many other kids’ fathers did.
I eventually came to understand that my father, as a CPA, really was providing a service to people by processing their tax returns. Soon enough, he was doing the same for me, getting me as big a refund as he legally could. The whole point of his job was to deal with this enormous headache that the government foisted on Americans each year. As a conservative, my father was all for lower taxes, but he was also for paying what you owed and against cheating. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my dad was actually the opposite of the tax collectors in the Bible: scrupulously honest, knowledgeable, a friend ready to assist with your irritating and complicated homework assignment.
I’m always reminded of Dad at this time of year, not just because I’m gathering up my own tax information and sending it off to be processed, but because my father was a devout Catholic who died during Holy Week in 2004, with a little more than a week left before the April 15 deadline for filing and 45 unfinished returns piled up on his desk. I may not believe in the afterlife, but I love the idea of Dad sitting up there in the clouds, hanging out with God and enjoying a martini, looking down as clients came through the receiving line at his wake and said things like “Gosh, I just loved your dad — he was such a great guy!” And then, after pausing for a moment, adding with concern: “Hey, do you know what’s going on with my taxes?”