September 20, 2017

Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

The Calling of St. Matthew

September 21st, is the feast of Saint Matthew, the Apostle and Evangelist, best known for the Gospel bearing his name. Information about his early years is scarce. He was highly educated. In the New Testament, he is referred to variously as "Levi" and the "son of Alphaeus." He received the name Matthew upon becoming a disciple of Christ. (Matthew in Hebrew: מַתִּתְיָהוּ‎‎ means "gift of God.")

As a publican for the Roman authorities, he collected taxes in Capernaum where Jesus is known to have resided in Peter’s house. Most tax collectors typically overcharged and pocketed the difference — a universally acknowledged practice. Moreover, they collaborated with the occupying Romans authorities in handling money deemed impure from those foreign to the People of God.

Matthew was despised by fellow Jews, especially the Pharisees who likened tax collectors to sinners, prostitutes and extortionists. As such, Jewish publicans were forbidden from marrying a Jewish woman, worshiping in the synagogue and participating in civil society. That our Savior would make Matthew, a man others thought unworthy, to be one of the foundations of His Church is instructive.

He is identified as the man sitting at the tax office whom Jesus calls to follow him: "As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, "'Follow me'. And he rose and followed him" (Matthew 9: 9). Whatever his standing in the Jewish community, Matthew was the most well-educated and well-off of the Apostles. At hearing Jesus’ command, he left his interests without hesitation. It is probable that Matthew knew of Jesus and his teachings since he was from Galilee in which Jesus ministered.

Shortly after his divine summons, scripture records that Matthew and his fellow tax collectors dined with Jesus: "When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, 'Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?' But when he heard it, he said, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.'" (Mark 2:16-17) Challenged by the Pharisees for eating with sinners, Christ's answer is definitive. Jesus sought out sinners — those with the greatest need — not the righteous. Pope Benedict XVI’s reflection on St. Matthew illuminates the mind of Christ:

"The good news of the Gospel consists precisely in this: offering God's grace to the sinner! … Another reflection prompted by the Gospel narrative is that Matthew responds instantly to Jesus' call: 'he rose and followed him". …For him it meant leaving everything, especially what guaranteed him a reliable source of income, even if it was often unfair and dishonorable. Evidently, Matthew understood that familiarity with Jesus did not permit him to pursue activities of which God disapproved." (Benedict XVI, General Audience, 8/30/2006.)

The Gospel according to Matthew is perhaps his most enduring contribution to the Church. Originally written in Aramaic, the language that our Lord Himself spoke, it speaks of Christ and His Kingdom to convince the Jews that their expected Messiah had come in the person of Jesus. Through Him, all the promises of the Messianic Kingdom spoken of by the prophets are fulfilled in spiritual terms, rather than in the political realm or in worldly terms.

According to various traditions, Matthew preached the Good News to the Jewish community in Judea, before evangelizing Ethiopia, where he received the crown of martyrdom. The king of Ethiopia, Hirticus, wished to marry his niece Iphigenia, the abbess of a convent, who Matthew converted to Christianity. When Matthew forbade the marriage, Hirticus had him killed. St. Matthew is the patron saint of accountants, civil servants and bankers. O God, who with untold mercy choose as an Apostle St. Matthew, the tax collector, grant that, sustained by his example and intercession, we may merit to hold firm in following you to the last measure.

A version of this article was previously published in September 2016.

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