The Tax Collector’s Vocation

The Tax Collector’s Vocation

For some of us, it might seem strange to bring critical social theory and Jesus’ parables into conversation. Using Terry Eagleton as his dialogue partner, Sam Curkpatrick shows how the parable of the pharisee and the tax-collector challenges our attempts to weave our own vocational identity, and calls us to humble encounter with God in the ‘profane’ world of work.

Full Title : Encountering Subjectivity: Terry Eagleton and the Tax Collector’s Embodied Vocation


Vocation concerns self-understanding as individuals and communities addressed by God, called into new possibilities for life lived before God. In contemporary Australian society, work, relationships, aspirations, the use of time, and ethical concerns are commonly negotiated topographies of vocation. Luke’s Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector (Lk 18:9–14) illustrates contrasting trajectories of vocation through two distinct characterisations: a religious expert and a government lackey are juxtaposed, and one is declared righteous. This parable is ironic, inverting expectations regarding secular and profane occupation, while encouraging humility in discovering God’s possibilities for life.

Terry Eagleton’s ethics (Trouble with Strangers, 2009) provides a useful frame for unpacking the divergent trajectories of the Pharisee and tax collector, through the categories of the imaginarysymbolic and real (after Lacan). The Pharisee’s self-confident understanding of vocation is mediated through imaginary and symbolic concerns, which suggest vocation as intrinsically linked to an occupational role, religious affiliation, and duty. This identity is self-cultivated and differentiated as sacred, buffered from everyday entanglements of human experience. Drawn away from everyday situations (he stood by himself to pray), the Pharisee’s vocation is demarcated and sustained through symbolic and imaginary practices (temple, tithing, law, and so forth).

In contrast, vocation for the tax collector begins in an honest acquiesce to human limitations and contradictions, and a real encounter with himself as fractured and strange. Here, Christian identity is not substantiated by religious representations. The vocation of the tax collector does not begin in a cultivated identity or negotiated duties, but an encounter with God in the flesh. Similarly, for Eagleton, it is our vulnerable, compromised bodies—the characteristic mode of being in the world—which preface tangible expressions of human meaning and love.

Luke’s parable is open-ended: that the tax collector went home justified suggests the ongoing discovery of vocation within perennial compromises and resistances of work, relationships, time, ethics, and aspiration. As a calling into situation and the secular engagements of human bodies, Christian vocation will be relevant to its christological impetus and contemporary expression, where it fosters genuine relationality by veracious testimony to embodied presence.

Full Title : Terry Eagleton and the Tax Collector’s Vocation


Sam Curkpatrick is a music performance Honours graduate (Monash), with further training at the Australian National Academy of Music, and has a doctorate in ethnomusicology (ANU, Canberra). Sam is the inaugural curator of the Hindmarsh Research Centre, which gives focus to Churches of Christ memory, identity, mission, and ministry; he is the Vic-Tas Partnership Coordinator with GMP. Sam is an online tutor in the discipline of Christian Theology at Stirling and an accredited University of Divinity lecturer for the theology unit Culture and CountryEngaging Faith in Contemporary Australian Society.

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