Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
This month, something different, I would like to focus on Saint Matthew, Apostle, and Evangelist whose feast day is September 21.
One day, while Jesus was walking, He saw a tax collector named Matthew, the brother of the Apostle James son of Alphaeus, sitting at a tax booth, and said to him, “Follow me.” Matthew stood up and followed Him, and became one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. The name Matthew means “gift of the Lord.” Mark and Luke, in the story of Matthew’s calling, name him “Levi.” Perhaps this was his original name, and he received a new name from Jesus when he became a disciple. It has also been suggested that he was simply a member of the tribe of Levi. A man having two names is a frequent occurrence among the Jews.
Matthew lived in the Galilean city of Capernaum and was a publican, a tax collector for Rome in a time when the Jews had come under the rule of the Roman Empire. Tax collectors, usually greedy and cruel people, were social outcasts. Devout Jews avoided them because they were usually dishonest—the job paid no salary, they were expected to make their profits from the people from whom they collected taxes. Patriotic and nationalistic Jews hated them because they were agents of the Roman government, the conquerors, and hated them with a double hatred if they, like Matthew, were Jews, because they had gone over to the enemy, had betrayed their own people for money. Thus, throughout the Gospels, we find tax collectors (publicans) mentioned as a standard type of sinful and despised outcast. The word “publican,” for the Jews, conveyed the sense of “public-sinner” and “idol-worshipper.” Even to speak with a tax collector was considered a sin, and to associate with one was defilement.
Matthew, hearing the voice of Jesus: “Come, follow me,” left his duties as a tax collector and followed Him. Jesus and His disciples did not refuse the invitation of Matthew and visited his house, where they shared a meal with the friends and acquaintances of the tax collector—who like the host were tax collectors and known sinners. Matthew brought many of his former associates to meet Jesus, and social outcasts were shown that the love of Jesus extended even to them. However, the Jewish teachers, Pharisees and scribes, were not able to comprehend that Jesus had come to call sinners to repentance.
Matthew, admitting his sinfulness, repaid four times anyone he had overcharged, distributed his remaining possessions to the poor, and followed Jesus. He was dutiful to Jesus’ instructions, believed His innumerable miracles, preached to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and witnessed Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. Having received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, Matthew for the first eight years preached in Palestine. Before his departure to faraway lands, Matthew gave an account of the earthly life of Jesus and His teachings.
It is disputed whether the Apostle Matthew is also the Evangelist Matthew. The Gospel itself does not say who wrote it, but the designation “according to Matthew” is very old. In favor of his authorship is that while Mark and Luke give the fourth pair of Apostles as “Matthew and Thomas,” the Gospel of Matthew gives them as “Thomas and Matthew”; and while Luke explicitly states and Mark suggests, that Matthew gave a banquet for Jesus, Matthew does not indicate who the host was. Both of these variations would be routine touches of humility if Matthew were the author. On the other hand, the gospel does not have the manner of an eyewitness, and is thought, by many scholars, to contain material borrowed from Mark, whereas, one would not expect someone who had been an eyewitness to borrow from someone who had not. However, early Christian readers, hearing the Gospel ascribed to Matthew, would naturally associate it with the Apostle and so the work was attributed to the Apostle Matthew at an early date.
Matthew’s Gospel was written to fill a want of his people. For believers, it was encouragement in the trial to come, especially of falling back to Judaism. For non-believers, it was to convince them that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus, in whom all the promises of the Messianic Kingdom, embracing all people, had been fulfilled in a spiritual rather than carnal way, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Matthew’s Gospel answered the question, put by the disciples of John the Baptist, “Are You He Who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Matthew preached among people having quite certain religious expectations about the Messiah. His Gospel presents itself as dramatic proof that Jesus is the real Messiah, foretold by the prophets and no other. Matthew in three parts presents Jesus’ preaching and works: Jesus as Prophet and Lawgiver, as Lord over both the visible and invisible world, and as High Priest offered as Sacrifice for the sins of humanity.
Matthew made the rounds with the “good-news” to Syria, Media, Persia, Parthia, and finished in Ethiopia with a martyr’s death. As the tradition goes, when Matthew was passionately pleading to God for the conversion of the Ethiopians during a time of prayer, the Lord appeared to him in the form of a youth, and giving him a staff, commanded him to put it upright at the doors of the church. When Matthew carried the staff towards the church, he met on the pathway the wife and son of the ruler of the land who were afflicted by unclean spirits. By the name of Jesus, he healed them. This converted a number of people. However, the ruler did not want his subjects to become Christians and cease worshiping the gods. He accused Matthew of sorcery and gave orders to execute him. They put him head downwards, heaped up brushwood, and ignited it. When the bonfire flared up, everyone saw that the fire did not harm Matthew. Then the ruler gave orders to add more wood to the fire and commanded that 12 idols be set up around the bonfire. However, the flames spread to the idols and even caught the ruler on fire. The frightened Ethiopian turned to Matthew for mercy, and by the prayer of the martyr, the flame went out. Matthew remained unharmed but later died.
In Christ’s service,