Nicholas and the Tax Collectors
by Carl H. Billings, Jr
This soliloquy features Nicholas, a bishop of the early Church, who later became known as St. Nicholas, the precursor for “Santa Claus,” as he prays through a personal decision point in his life: How will this church leader use his personal and organizational wealth?
Although the play is suitable for any time of the year, it may be especially poignant around December 6th, the observance of St. Nicholas Day, when audience members may themselves be confronting similar questions regarding their own wealth.
1 Timothy 6:17-19
1 Peter 3:8-15
Nicholas: Bishop of Myra, a man in his middle age, tall and thin
Simple wooden table with optional cloth cover
Leather drawstring bag of coins (or heavy metal pieces)
Large candle on candlestick or resting on table
Large, ornate pulpit Bible on table
We are in the private study of Bishop Nicholas, in the evening as he considers his day in prayer.
Narrator (offstage): Nicholas was a bishop in Myra, a city which is on the southern coast of modern day Turkey. In his lifetime he suffered the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian and rejoiced when Diocletian’s successor, Constantine, legalized Christianity. When his fortunes turned, Nicholas was faced with important life questions similar to those you face every day. When living through times of change, you seek a firmer understanding of who you are, to whom you belong and the meaning and purpose for your life.
Let’s listen in on Bishop Nicholas as he talks with God and wrestles with these important questions.
Nicholas: (Enter a man in a robe; cross to center stage where there is a kneeler. He pauses then kneels at the kneeler. He begins to speak in Greek, reciting a prayer (Sou Christu, Kyrios en panto. Eis doxan Theou. (“Soo CHRIS-too KEER-ee-ohs en PAHN-ta. Ice DOCK-zan THEH-ooh.”) He pauses, looks up and pulls the hood back.)
Lord, forgive me. I must depart from the traditional and standard prayer. My soul is deeply troubled and I must speak to you more directly, as my thoughts dictate. I find the traditions helpful. They remind us of who we are in you, where we come from, and where we are going. Yet at times it is important that we, your followers, speak to you without the mediator of tradition, to purposefully pray our thoughts and concerns, and to listen to where your Holy Spirit would direct us.
This is your servant Nicholas. (laughs at his impertinence) I tell you who I am as if you do not know me, and yet you know me better than I know myself. You know my thoughts, actions and motives, and you know what is troubling me. (looks down) You know that I am not anyone great. I do not have the mind to be a great theologian. I have a good mind, yet my thoughts are not as deep, nor can I articulate my faith as clearly as people like Justin who was martyred, or Athanasius, or any of the great theologians who surround me in the present or the past. I don’t even know how I really got to be bishop. It was due more to the fact that I was one of the few who survived the Emperor Diocletian’s persecutions than to my wisdom.
That is why I am praying. Things happen so quickly that I am at a loss for what to do. (in awe of the fact) I am a bishop of a Church that now can worship freely. The Emperor Constantine has made Christianity a legal religion of the Empire. Not only that, but he also has commanded that all the wealth and property that was taken—looted—from the Church, must be returned. (crosses to table while talking and picks up a bag of gold) That is a great deal of wealth for someone who is more used to being in want than in plenty. (pauses) My soul burns with this question: How can I use such wealth wisely and to your glory? I do not know that answer. That is why I am troubled in spirit and why I am praying to you in this way, instead of in the traditions of my elders in the faith.
(shifts position or moves slightly) I know what I dream of doing and that is to1111111111 use this money that has been given back to the Church to build a wonderful sanctuary to the glory of your name. (looks to horizon as though imagining the vision) It would stand on a cliff overlooking the sea. The church would be of such size and greatness that sailors far out to sea would be able to see it. The cathedral would become a landmark by which to identify our beautiful city of Myra. (slightly animated) I would hire the finest stonemasons and artists. I would use the best material—gold and ivory from Africa, marble from Italy, rugs from Persia. People would come from all over the Empire just to marvel at the beauty of it. It would become known throughout the civilized world. The church would be standing long after I had gone to the grave. For years, decades, and even centuries to come, people would look at this great church and think of Bishop Nicholas, its builder. (catches himself in ego-laden thought) All of this, of course, would be done to your glory,Lord.
(pauses, realizing his foolishness more deeply and talking to self now) You are fooling only yourself, Nicholas. The cathedral would not be built to God’s glory. You would build it for your glory alone. (shaking his head) Is this how you would squander the Church’s new-found wealth, in building a monument to yourself?
There are other ways to use this money. There are hurting people in the world: people suffering from persecution, and from the civil war. People like Julian, the tax- collector. It was he who brought you this first sack of gold coins (holds up sack of coins and looks at it) as part of the money that is being returned to the Church. How ironic that a former tax collector now finds himself in poverty. (justifying his thought) For good reason: most of his wealth was looted from the Church. Sadly, however, it is his three daughters of marrying age who will suffer the most. If he is not able to gather together enough money for a dowry for each of them, he will be forced, by the perverse customs of this age, to sell them into slavery or a life of prostitution.
(protesting against his own generous thoughts) But why should I help this tax collector? Why should this church reward its former enemies? He has persecuted your Church, and only now, when it is safe and profitable, does he confess belief in you and claim to be a Christian. (shifting position, and continuing the debate with himself) It is true that he has acknowledged, confessed and renounced his past actions. Truly he has repented of them, but that does not take away the hurt that he caused. Julian is still a leech on the Church. Now he is trying to use the Church in a different way! Julian was a bureaucrat—a tax collector—and like the rest of those loathsome vermin he can never change his character!
(Stunned by his own venom, and changing position) Nicholas! Who has set you to be judge over Julian? You are responding as though you refuse to let the wounds heal from your past persecution. God’s grace can heal both you and Julian. Our Lord Jesus Christ accepts all who come to him. Nicholas, Nicholas! Do you not recall that Jesus had a special place in his heart for tax collectors, people such as Zaccheus and Matthew. People like Julian. Those men changed their character, or should I say “had their character changed by you, Lord.” It was through Matthew that a most wonderful account of your life and teaching has been written for the church. Matthew tells how you accepted all who came to you, that you shepherded them as a shepherd does his sheep. You have given me the gift of helping you tend your flock here in Myra, (Nicholas pauses as he thinks.) A flock of which Julian is now a part.
(Looks at bag of gold, moving it from hand to hand as though deciding between two options. After a pause, he continues.)
It is decided: I will help Julian, but I will make sure that he understands what grave harm he has done to your Church. I will remind him it is only through the graciousness of the Church that he is receiving this gift. He had better appreciate it or—(pauses and breaks into laughter) Nicholas, Nicholas, when will you learn? You constantly want to be in the center of things. You do not want to be the unknown servant. You imagine yourself as the great church builder, the wisely judging bishop, or at least the great benefactor who forgives his enemies. (kneeling) Lord, forgive my pride and arrogance. Help me to serve you and not myself.
(crossing to the table, putting down sack of gold and picking up Bible) What would the tax collector Matthew say about this matter? (leafs through book until he finds Matthew 24:44- 46) Ah, here is true wisdom! (reads passage) “Always be ready! You don’t know when the Son of Man will come. Who are faithful and wise servants? Who are the ones the master will put in charge of giving the other servants their food supplies at the proper time? Servants are fortunate if their master comes and finds them doing their job.”
(puts down book, and thinks for a moment before continuing) Help me, Lord, to be a good servant. I will never be famous, but help me to be faithful. (slowly getting excited as the idea builds in his mind) I will write a note thus, “For your daughters’ dowries,” and leave it unsigned. Tonight, when all in Myra are sleeping soundly, I will journey to Julian’s home and toss the bag of gold down the chimney. Julian will never know where it came from. (now fully excited) Even thinking about this decision gives me joy! My mind is suddenly flooded with many ways I can use the wealth of the church. The sailors that frequent our city have so many needs … . And our children—there is so much that the church can do for them.
Thank you, Lord. You used one tax collector to show me how to serve another tax collector and all who are around me. Thank you, (stops, crosses himself while saying in Greek) En to onomati tou Patrou, Jesu Christu, kai Hagiou Pneumatos. Amen. (“En tah ahnaMAH-tee too PAH-troo, YAY-zoo CHRIS-too kigh HAHG-ee-oo PNOO-mah-tuhs. Ah-men.”)
Narrator: Tradition holds that Bishop Nicholas continued his generous ways throughout his life. His legendary generosity to people who were poor and defenseless became the basis for the character whom today we call Santa Claus. As for Nicholas’ imagined lack of fame: Throughout the world, more churches are named after Saint Nicholas than any other saint or person.
- The bare-stage technique is used for performing this play. The audience is asked to use its imagination to mentally construct most of the scene as it is described in the soliloquy.
- There are only two set pieces on stage—a kneeler downstage right, and a table with a candle, a Bible and bag of coins upstage center right.
- Lighting is simple: The table and kneeler are bathed in soft light, as is the main location where Nicholas’ soliloquy will take place. No spotlight or footlights are needed.
- The hooded cloak can be rented or made of dark maroon cloth with white corduroy to line the inside of hood. A cincture of heavy cording material ties the cloak at Nicholas’ waist.
- Nicholas’ gaze carries the imagined action in the soliloquy. The actor should never look at the audience. Instead, the actor relives imagined scenes by picturing them just above the audience’s heads. For example, Nicholas stands downstage right, looks left just over the audience and pictures the scene of the new church he will build.
- Nicholas should decide in advance where the imagined offstage characters are located, and should be consistent when looking in their direction each time he refers to them.
- This play is based both on the history of the early Church and traditions about Saint Nicholas. The Greek prayers used within the play help to take the audience back to that time. The translations are: “In the name of the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” and “Jesus Christ Lord in All, to the Glory of God. The translations might be inserted into program notes or incorporated into its cover.
Do your best to get the Greek pronunciations right. But if actors pronounce the words as with authority, the audience will believe what they are hearing.
Leader’s Guide with suggestions to use in worship and other congregational settings, preparation, discussion guide, activity ideas, Biblical conversation, and thematic exploration
Eleven short, easily-staged and performed plays stimulate thought about poverty, hunger and mission. Purchase from ELCA Resources.