St. Matthew, Publican and Apostle

Statue of St. Matthew from the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in the Vatican
Statue of St. Matthew from the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in the Vatican

Today we come to one of the better known apostles, St. Matthew, also known as Levi in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. St. Matthew was known primarily for being a tax collector, and it was while he was sitting at his post in Capernaum when Jesus called him. It’s actually more accurate for us to think of Matthew as a “publican”, an official position in the Roman Empire. Publicans were despised by their fellow Jews because their job meant that they collaborated with the occupying Romans. Publicans were contractors, overseeing public building projects and other goings-on. But yes, they were mostly known for collecting taxes.

Being a publican was very profitable. Taxes in the Empire didn’t work as they do today, but instead, the Roman officials approximated how much tax a province could handle, and the publican would manage the payment. The sum paid to Rome was actually treated as a loan, and the publicans would receive interest on that payment in the end. Also, the publican kept any excess tax collected beyond the requested sum, so there was extra incentive for the publican to collect. You can imagine why it was considered a rather greedy profession.

The fact that St. Matthew turned away from an incredibly profitable life as a publican to follow Jesus makes his conversion all the more powerful. He even held a “going away party” of sorts, inviting all of his friends – who were also publicans, because everyone else hated him. But Jesus clearly gives his reasons for calling Matthew as an apostle: “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Even as a sinner, St. Matthew was empowered by Christ to do wonderful things. He became an eyewitness to the Resurrection, and afterward, spent his time serving the communities of Palestine. Perhaps he was making amends for his previous life, but he selflessly served his Hebrew brothers and sisters until he moved elsewhere. Where exactly he went, we don’t know. Some sources mention Persia, others Macedonia, and others Syria. Almost all mention that he preached in Ethiopia…but not that Ethiopia. The Ethiopia Matthew went to was south of the Caspian Sea, near Armenia. I guess they didn’t know the name “Ethiopia” had already been taken!

The tradition of the Church is that Matthew was martyred like so many of his apostle brothers, but there is disagreement as to how or where. Whether he was burned, stoned, or beheaded, suffice to say that it wasn’t pretty, but he did it to give witness to Christ. Today, what are believed to be his remains rest in the Cathedral of Salerno, Italy.

St. Matthew doesn’t seem to have as many fancy stories as the other apostles, but his primary contribution as an evangelist was authoring the Gospel bearing his name. It was written in Aramaic, the language of his people, and then translated later into Greek. We are not exactly sure when it was written (there were no copyright pages then), but probably very early, possibly even 10 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus!

The transformation of Matthew from a man of selfishness and greed to a man of generous and loving service is a great example for us today. It’s easy for us to get down on ourselves for our weaknesses, believing that we are not good enough for God, but like St. Matthew, Christ calls us to follow him, especially as sinners. Let us continue to pray that we would embrace that call to live and spread the Gospel, just as St. Matthew did!

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