Who Goes to Heaven: Prostitutes, Tax Collectors, or Pharisees?

In the Gospels, a tax collector is different from an IRS agent or the State version today. Israel was conquered by the Roman army, led by Herod the great. (The same Herod who killed the Holy Innocents.) The Romans then demanded taxes from the Jews. But since they did not have much in the way of records, to know who had how much money, the Romans would appoint tax collectors from among the Jews, to tell the Romans who had which resources. And the tax collectors could use excessive force, and could collect excessive taxes, keeping whatever was extra. And of course that money was going to the occupying force. So tax collectors were particularly despised.

Prostitutes were active in Israel during the Roman occupation because the Roman laws permitted their work. Before the occupation, perhaps the Jewish authorities would be able to do something to keep prostitution in check, to keep it out of sight. But with the Romans in charge, prostitution flourished openly, and this upset the Pharisees. They taught that prostitution was wrong (and it is), but they could not do anything about it. So they disliked prostitutes for reasons over and above the nature of their occupation.

The Pharisees were a religious sect, which operated much like a political party. They were conservatives, and the other major sect, the Sadducees, were liberals. There were many errors among both groups, as Jesus explains in various places in the Gospels. But not every Pharisee or Sadducee was a bad person. We have an expression today, Pharisaism, which refers to putting human rules above the moral law and above love and mercy. But not all Pharisees in past times were bad persons. Saint Paul, before his conversion, was a Pharisee.

The scribes had positions in religion like theologians and canon lawyers today. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a scribe. But they tended to support the errors of the Pharisees, who were in power. Their theology was filled with rationalizations for grave sin (Mt 23), much like the scribes of today.

What did Jesus say on this question, as to who goes to Heaven?

{21:28} But how does it seem to you? A certain man had two sons. And approaching the first, he said: ‘Son, go out today to work in my vineyard.’
{21:29} And responding, he said, ‘I am not willing.’ But afterwards, being moved by repentance, he went.
{21:30} And approaching the other, he spoke similarly. And answering, he said, ‘I am going, lord.’ And he did not go.
{21:31} Which of the two did the will of the father?” They said to him, “The first.” Jesus said to them: “Amen I say to you, that tax collectors and prostitutes shall precede you, into the kingdom of God.
{21:32} For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not believe him. But the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. Yet even after seeing this, you did not repent, so as to believe him.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day pretended to do the will of God. They talked about religion all day. They were immersed in teaching religion and in following religious precepts. But it is clear from the way that Jesus spoke about the Pharisees (e.g. Mt 23) that some of them did not go to Heaven. So religion does not necessarily save you.

If you truly love God and neighbor, then you go to Heaven. But if you seem to love God, but hate your neighbor, you don’t really love God, and you will go to Hell — unless you repent.

When Jesus speaks about prostitutes and tax collectors going to Heaven, He says that they believed even John, and He implies that they repented. So with repentance, they certainly could go to Heaven.

As for the Pharisees, some of them were guilty of actual mortal sin, and so were on the path to Hell. This must be true, since Jesus states it openly:

{5:20} For I say to you, that unless your justice has surpassed that of the scribes and the Pharisees you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

What if they don’t repent? Anyone guilty and unrepentant of actual mortal sin goes to Hell. But perhaps some of these sinners, in all three categories, are in good conscience, or at least not guilty to the full extent of actual mortal sin. Such a person does not necessarily go to Heaven. If you are not guilty of actual mortal sin in one area of life, you might be guilty in another area. Of two prostitutes who are both so misguided as to think that they are not sinning gravely, one might love others and the other might be selfish and hateful. Of two thieves, being punished for their crimes, one might repent and believe, and the other might die in his anger and bitterness.

An atheist who is not guilty of actual mortal sin for rejecting God and religion might be guilty of actual mortal sin for adultery or greed or whatever else. So the person who commits an objective mortal sin, and is perhaps not guilty to an extent that would call for eternal punishment for that objective sin, must still love others in order to be saved.

But there is another limiting factor. Some objective mortal sins are so clearly wrong that no human person, who is in his or her right mind, could possibly have a sincere but mistaken conscience. A person might mistakenly think that gay marriage is moral, or that sex outside of marriage is moral. But I think it is not possible to commit acts of terrorism against random innocent persons with a sincere but mistaken conscience. Certain acts are so far beyond what the reason of even a fallen sinner might allow as to be always both an objective mortal sin and an actual mortal sin. And for such acts, repentance would be necessary to go to Heaven.

In my opinion, malice is always an actual mortal sin. You cannot have true full malice towards another human person, a real full hatred and a desire for that person to be harmed or destroyed (apart from any type of retributive justice), with a sincere but mistaken conscience. Malice is entirely incompatible with love of neighbor and the state of grace. So, too, is lust. However, gravely disordered acts do not necessarily imply the interior sin of lust. But malice and lust, and let’s add greed as well, are interior sins that necessarily involve abandoning the love of neighbor to put hatred, or sex, or money in the highest place.

And then we have idolatry. Putting anything in such a high place in your life that you basically worship it is a grave sin. I’m not sure you can do that and also claim to have a sincere but mistaken conscience. Worshipping money, or sex, or power, or yourself, or some other person, other than God, is a very grave sin. So it may be the case that some of the Pharisees sinned so gravely by idolatry, making themselves to be as if objects of worship, that they could not have a sincere but mistaken conscience.

I should also mention here that at least a few of the Pharisees knew that Jesus was the Messiah. They literally knew, when they plotted to have Him put to death, that the charges were false, that He was entirely innocent, and that He was the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews. They knew, and they had him put to death anyway, because they didn’t want to humble themselves to be followers and worshippers, they wanted to be followed and practically worshiped in His place.

{20:14} And when the settlers had seen him, they discussed it among themselves, saying: ‘This one is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance will be ours.’

Prostitutes, Tax Collectors, and Pharisees today

Can sex workers and porn stars go to Heaven? If they repent, certainly. If they do not repent, then they would have to have a sincere but mistaken conscience, and also they would have to be in the state of grace at least by loving their neighbor selflessly and fully.

What is the modern-day equivalent of tax collectors? It isn’t actual employees of the IRS or similar agencies, not unless they severely abuse their power, which would be highly illegal. The modern equivalent might be the slum lord, who takes advantage of his tenants, or the employee, who takes advantage of his workers,

As for the modern-day Pharisees, these are anyone who has a leadership role in religion, who abuses their power, or teaches grave error. And the sin of the Pharisees is usually graver than the sins of the prostitutes and tax collectors, because they are offending God more directly, and become the things of religion are of higher value, so offending in such a matter is a greater offense.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian

2 thoughts on “Who Goes to Heaven: Prostitutes, Tax Collectors, or Pharisees?

    • It is gravely immoral for an employer to take advantage of his employees. How grave the sin depends on the particular case, what is being done to the worker, how severe is the harm, etc.


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