The Pharisee and the Publican by Jesus Mafa Project

Jesus Mafa Project

The Pharisee and the Publican, 1973, Painting, Current location unknown, © MAFA Editions de l'Emmanuel (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 )

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The Taxpayer and the Tax Agent

Commentary by

The Life of Jesus Mafa was a Roman Catholic missionary project in the 1970s that aimed to teach the gospel to inhabitants of Northern Cameroon, and help them relate it to their daily lives. François Vidil worked with Mafa Christian communities (who dressed up and enacted the scenes) to create an extensive series of paintings depicting Jesus and other New Testament characters as contemporary Africans.

We are shown a simple building with two men in it—one foregrounded, one backgrounded, both facing forward. The man in the foreground can be read as a ‘take-charge’ type. His eyeglasses may suggest intelligence, education, and privilege. He is dressed in white. Speaking to an implied audience to his left (outside the painted composition), he seems authoritative—pointing with his right hand as he places his left hand over his heart; referring to himself perhaps. He is the pharisee of Luke 18.

Standing at distance behind him is the other man in the story. He is dressed in blue, his shoulders stooping forward, his face contorted as he looks down at his plaintively cupped palms.

The artist has taken a liberty with the text, which has both men standing apart from each other and in prayer. They are not interacting with others. But this artist has the pharisee speaking to a nearby auditor or auditors. He seems an upstanding citizen and to know what he is doing.

And there is no harm in that, is there? That is Luke’s penetrating question. The pharisee pays his taxes. The collector carries them to their destination. Who wants to pay taxes to an oppressive occupier after all? Perhaps there were some dishonest tax agents on top of all that who earned them the double opprobrium of the populace, but in what governmental office is there no corruption?

Phariseeism is a method of scriptural interpretation. Collecting taxes is a livelihood—in this case, on behalf of a hated occupier. Comparing them is inane, or rather impossible. Perhaps the tax collector is also a pharisee. We do not know. But we do know that the one who pays taxes and the one who collects them from him are both working to prevent violence during a hated occupation with bloodshed being but a touch away. Who is to condemn either?

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