The feast of the apostle and evangelist Matthew is observed in the Roman Church on September 21. On this date, day and night are so evenly divided that in many parts of the world twelve hours are light and twelve hours are dark. This day has proved to be just as symbolic for Matthew as December 21 has proved to be for Thomas, the doubter, the companion and neighbor of the first evangelist. For this December day is the shortest day of the year, when the dark prevails over the light, when the sun sinks the earliest.
Glancing at the four scripture lists of the apostles, one notices that Matthew was placed right in the middle. He was the bridge between the first six and the last six apostles. The golden mean characterized his nature and his work, too.
Christian art has associated the symbol of a man with wings with this evangelist, because he began his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus Christ. This symbol is very helpful in pointing out the nature of Matthew. He was a man who was just as human as the other apostles. He had his shortcomings; he was not perfect. Nevertheless, he was a man with wings for he raised himself up with the wings of his own good will, and with the more powerful wings of a strengthening grace, above his human weakness and human frailty.
Matthew, the Tax-Collector
Matthew-possibly from the Hebrew word "mattai," meaning "gift of God"-had a double name, Matthew Levi. Both Mark and Luke introduced this apostle in their Gospels as Levi. In his own Gospel this evangelist referred to himself simply as Matthew, the name by which he is known to Christians today.
Naturally the question was raised whether the Levi in Mark's and Luke's Gospels was the same person as the Matthew who wrote a passage concerning himself in the first Gospel. Nevertheless, if one compares these three passages with each other-Matt.9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32-and also the passages that immediately precede and follow the accounts of the apostle's calling, he could no longer doubt that Matthew and Levi are two names for one and the same man. Not only is the frame the same, but so is the picture. All three accounts agree. Moreover, Matthew himself alluded to the fact that he was known by two names. When he recorded how he was called to the apostolate by Christ, he referred to himself as "a man named Matthew." But this hint becomes clear only if the Greek text is translated literally: "Matthaion legomenon"- "the so called Matthew." In other words, his name was Levi, but he was surnamed Matthew, "mattai," the gift of God." Levi, the so-called Matthew!
St Jerome was fully aware of the difference between Mark's and Luke's account of this apostle's name on the one hand and that of the first evangelist on the other hand. In his commentary of St. Matthew's Gospel he made the clever observation,
Out of honor and respect for Matthew the other evangelist did not want to name him by his commonly known name so they said "Levi." The apostle called himself "Matthew" and "tax-collector." By this he wanted to show he was converted to a better life. He himself had suddenly changed from a tax-collector to an apostle.
It is also conceivable that the first evangelist, after his conversion, preferred the significant name of Matthew-"gift of God"-to his other name of Levi. Today the name Levi connotes money and business. Levi was the tax-collector. Matthew was the apostle. Isodad of Merv, relying on an old Oriental tradition, reported that "this change of names (fully intentional) was made because the Lord wanted to take the Jewish prejudice away from Matthew, lest he be a swindler and enemy of God."
The evangelist Mark called Matthew Levi, "the son of Alphaeus." This has led many to assert that Matthew was the brother of the apostles James the Less, who also was the son of an Alpheus. St. John Chrysostom was of the opinion that these two apostles were not only brother, but also tax-collectors. Yet the Gospels give no basis for such a relationship, neither that of brother nor that of fellow-worker. It was only a coincidence that both their fathers happened to have the same name.
With Matthew, a real individual, a unique personality entered the group of apostles. He distinguished himself from the apostles who were called before him in that he was not an unknown fisherman but a tax-collector who held a position in his society and had money. The early life of this apostle was not recorded in the Gospels. Matthew entered the circle around our Lord quite suddenly and unannounced, but the accounts of his calling permit these a posteriori conclusions. It seems that Matthew was also older than the other apostles, for a position such as Matthew occupied demanded a long and arduous struggle.
Certainly Matthew, the first evangelist, had a better education than the other apostles. From this he can correctly be called "the most valuable of all the Twelve." His profession as a tax-collector presupposed a thorough apprenticeship. He had to learn to write, to read, and, what was so dull, to count, to add, to subtract, to multiply, and to divide. There were figures and calculations, many figures, figures first and last, before and after all, and almost nothing else but figures. Later he had to run the money-tables. He had to know prices and rates and charges, the price of grain and oil, the value of the fish which the sons of Zebedee brought to him, the worth of pearls that our Lord Himself mentioned in the Gospels.
At the time when the young Peter and Andrew, James and John, with their fathers, John and Zebedee, were casting off into the sea, under sun and storm, the old Alpheus was sending his young son to a schoolroom where he studied among books and papers. There Levi learned how to be shrewd and clever, or, as the saying goes, to be "fit for life." And actually Matthew was much more cultivated than the staunch and hard-working fishermen on the sea. Their trade brought them comfort and well-being, but Matthew's business could raise him much higher, lead him to wealth and riches.
Matthew owned two houses when he made his appearance in the Gospels. There was his office with the commercial firms outside the city, "the tax-collector's place." And he had a private home inside Capharnaum, a large villa that was very spacious. It was so big and roomy that when invited for the Lord and others to enter, he "gave a great feast for him at his house; and there was a great gathering of publicans and of others, who were at the table with them." No poor man with a small house could have done this.
"A great gathering of publicans and of others!" Matthew maintained many and influential social contacts. In this respect also he differed much from the other apostles. Regularly he came to the princely court in Tiberias to settle his accounts with Herod, the ruler of the land. There he learned politics, the "inside stories," plots and schemes, scandals. Many a high and mighty lord in need of some "quick cash" he rescued from social embarrassment. They were indebted to him; he controlled their bows and smiles of thanks like puppets on strings. But what did Peter or John or Philip know about this "better business"? Matthew knew only too well. Even the most lordly of lords would dance his dance before him for money.
Certainly the gloomy chapter in the life of Matthew began when he became a tax-collector. Only God knows how he came to this infamous profession. Perhaps he took it up at the wish or command of his father; maybe a friend interested him in trying it out. It might have been his own idea-perchance it was his craving for money. In order to give a true and just explanation of this disreputable profession of collecting taxes, one must first remember its very questionable existence. It is necessary to consider all the information. Only then can one evaluate the nobility of Matthew the tax-collector.
In the Roman Empire taxes were not collected directly from wages, nor was there a state official or comptroller to oversee the levy. Rather the state leased its tax rights to the highest bidder. Therefore, the lessee had to assess a high rate of tax in his area if he did not want to come out in the red.
Often the price, especially for a large district, was so great that an individual could not assume the responsibility alone. A number of these bidders, therefore, quite frequently united and formed companies. Many of these, in the Roman Empire, belonged to wealthy brotherhoods of knights. They divided up their provinces into smaller districts and sublet their purchased rights to their tax-collectors, or publicans. Matthew was one of these smaller collectors. They also were forced to pay high prices still higher taxes from the poor laboring man. It was not a vicious circle, for it ended with the working class, upon whom it lay like a crushing burden.
It is understandable how such a system, which did relieve the government of many troubles and headaches, opened the door to many abuses. Certainly there existed duties and taxes and tariffs fixed by the State, but these were not nearly enough to eliminate the avarice, fraud, and extortion of the collectors. In fact, such vices were accepted behavior among tax-collectors.
Therefore the voice of the people against these tax-collectors and publicans was very bitter and severe. They were esteemed as "the bears and wolves of human society." To say "tax-collector" was to say "thief." Cicero maintained that the grave dissatisfaction of the people arose, not from the public act of imperial taxation as such, but from the manner in which these taxes were levied. He named the tax-collector's profession the worst of all possible trades. And to this profession Matthew Levi had dedicated himself.
The Jews considered the occupation of a tax-collector an outrageous disgrace. For the pagan Roman authorities, for this hated force occupying Jewish territory, the publicans collected taxes! A Jew was impoverishing other Jews, and for foreigners, for pagan foreigners, at that! That was not only deception and robbery, but also a crime against their homeland and their religion. A conscientious Jew asked himself the question whether it was permissible for him even to pay a tax to the emperor. And then these wretched collectors came along, these traitorous "collaborateurs"-as they would have been called, borrowing an expression from the stock of words used during and after the World Wars-and out of greed they dared to exact a tribute from the chosen race of God!
The Talmud did not conceal the Jewish disdain and contempt for the tax-collector. In lawsuits these collectors could act neither as judges nor as witnesses. Their families were avoided, had poor reputations, were considered without honor. No Jewish young man, if he were loyal, would think of taking the daughter of a publican to wife. It was even forbidden to receive alms from one of these despised officials, or to change money through him. A good Jew would not defile himself with such scandalously earned money. The Jews might even have doubted whether a tax-collector or a publican were really serious, whether he did not really regret what he was doing, and by that fact alone was capable of salvation.
So the tax-collectors were excluded from civil as well as from religious society, as least de facto, if not de jure. They were named in one breath along with murderers, assassins, thieves, robbers, criminals, and harlots. Everything was charged against them. It was not wrong to deceive them, swindle them, rob them. That was only a just revenge in return for their unjust oppression of the people.
In the Gospels this scorn of the Jews for the publicans and tax-collectors was made quite evident. When Christ was speaking of fraternal correction, He said, "'And if he (one's brother) refuse to hear them (witnesses), appeal to the Church, but he refuse to hear even the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican.'" When speaking to the Pharisees in the parable of the two sons, He said, "'Amen I say to you, the publicans and harlots are entering the kingdom of God before you.'" John the Baptist who was prompted to admonish the publicans very bluntly when they came to him, "'Exact no more than what has been appointed you. '"
Even after realizing all this, one can still understand how Matthew Levi can be exonerated. He was not salaried by the pagan Romans. At the time of our Lord their basic sovereignty practiced in Capharnaum, which seems to have been his home. Occupying the tax-collector's position there, he was therefore subject to the tetrarch of Galilee, Herod. But this was the Herod whom the Jews rejected as an intruder despite all his flattery. He was the Herod who played the abominable role in the New Testament as an adulterer, murderer of John the Baptist, and judge of Christ on Good Friday. Was Matthew not many times inwardly disgusted when he sat together with this criminal to settle his accounts, when this insolent and lewd imbecile grinned and winked his lascivious and red-with-wine eyes while asking for a fatter purse the next time?
Had also Matthew, the tax-collector, fouled and dirtied himself with those unjust gains?
The Gospels offer no explicit information here. Matthew did not make that betraying and fatal protest-to excuse oneself is often to accuse oneself-that his colleague, Zacchaeus, a leading publican in Jericho, offered to the Lord: "Behold, Lord, I give one-half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.'" Matthew was also a deeply religious man. The Gospel which he was to write later is full of citations from the Old Testament. He had a deep belief and a great trust in the word of God. Nevertheless, it was very difficult for him, so fully engrossed in his endangering profession and surrounded by so many evil examples, to keep himself completely spotless and without fault.
The beautiful words of the Lord at the feast in the house of Matthew concerned the sick who need a physician. They appear to have been spoken also for the benefit of this public servant who had just been called to follow Christ. Commenting on the First Gospel, St John Chrysostom did not hesitate to take for granted that "the service at the table at that banquet was obtained by injustice and avarice."
Yet, whatever Matthew's secret feelings may have been, the people did not make any careful distinction. He was still a tax-collector like all other tax-collectors. He was a swindler, a thief, a traitor. His profession was held in such ill repute that the evangelist Mark and Luke were indulgently silent about his earlier occupation when they listed him with the other apostles. And when they had to mention his name when relating the account of his calling, they attempted to cover up for him by using the name of Levi instead of Matthew.
Without a doubt, the apostle Matthew had to suffer for his public position. Possible there were evenings when he returned home with his pockets full and sat with his head in his hands while, breathing heavily, he thought over the events of the day. He could still see the hostile glances of the people, and their clenched fist. He could still hear the dirty money hit the street when it was thrown to him as they would throw garbage to a hungry dog. Of what use was all this money to him, if his own people outlawed him? He heard a voice coming from the depths of his soul, and later he recorded those words: "'For what does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?'" His soul! Did Levi weep then?
If only he could begin anew! How satisfied he would have been with a poor boat, a clear conscience-he, the poor rich man! But is there a bond more difficult to break than the clutch of wealth? Yet there was One who was soon to call him away from his life as tax-collector and criminal once and for all.
He was to be banned from all "lawful reckoning" in the company of his friends and companions, for whom business transactions and money were important in a real but secondary way, as a means to the primary source of all wealth, the wealth of the beatific vision and happiness in heaven. It was impossible for him to escape. His yearning soul fluttered like a bird with clipped wings in a cage. If only his good will would grow other wings which could lift him out of himself, over his old self, to the new and splendid heights above the old riches of the earth!
In those last months in the tax-collector's place, the gathering place for all gossip and rumors, the people had been speaking more and more frequently of a new prophet, Jesus of Nazareth. Had he understood correctly?
And his fame spread into all Syria; and they brought to him all the sick suffering from various diseases and torments, those possessed, and lunatics, and paralytics; and he cured them. And there followed him large crowds from Galilee and Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
For several weeks, then, this new and renowned prophet had been residing in Capharnaum. He had spoken with the fisherman, Simon-the Son of John-and then He left again. A few days before it had happened-and Matthew could not forget it-that this Jesus, with a large following, passed by the place of the tax-collector. How had it all come about? Matthew never could fully explain it, but suddenly Jesus and Levi were standing next to each other, face to face, just for a second. Now Matthew knew why the crowd was following Him. His eyes had pierced the depths of the tax-collector's soul as a ray of the sun penetrates the dust-filled air of a gloomy room. The glance of the Messias had fallen upon him; like the sun, it was bright and magnificent. Matthew considered. For one brief moment he was ready to follow Him. But no!
No! Matthew knew what the prophets and theologians thought about him, the publican-what they had to think. Then suddenly he heard what he could not believe, what he wanted to hear, what he had thought was impossible for him ever to hear. The trained ear of Matthew, the shrewd collector, could tell, even from a distance and in a noisy crowd, who was coming by His step, or who was speaking by His voice. It was God, the prophet! The quiet Levi began to tremble. He made a mistake. Then Jesus came nearer and stopped before him, looked at him and spoke to him. He spoke only two words. but these two words changed the whole world for Matthew: "'Follow me.'"
Later Matthew included in his Gospel two quotations from the prophet Isaias concerning the works of Jesus. These selections demonstrate the objectivity which is so characteristic of the first evangelist's Gospel. He usually held back his own personal knowledge and experience of the greatness of God, but this was not completely concealed, for its echo can be heard in his quotations from Isaias: "' The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light; And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death, a light has arisen.'" And, "' He himself took up our infirmities, and bore the burden of our ills.'" Was the evangelist thinking of himself here?
That this description of the soul, mind, and heart of the tax-collector before his calling is more than mere supposition and conjecture, the apostle himself showed by his account of his call: "Now as Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting in the tax-collector's place, and said to him, 'Follow me.' And he arose and followed him." With a jerk he knocked back his chair, to which he had been nailed fast for years, and shoved the drawer of the money-chest shut with such a bang that the whole till clinked and clanked and clattered, and all the weighty papers that lay before him were quickly rumpled and crumpled by his trembling hand. Matthew was excited. He "followed Him"-he, the rich, tax-collector who had been living in luxury and abundance, followed Him, who had nothing, Him, who had "nowhere to lay his head." A man, even a man as old as Matthew and with his experience, would not have behaved so if he had thought that this call to a new life was not a true salvation, a source of real happiness.