The Pope: On St. Matthew

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

Continuing with the series of portraits of the Twelve Apostles, which we began a few weeks ago, today we reflect on Matthew.

To tell the truth, it is almost impossible to delineate his figure completely, as information on him is scarce and incomplete. What we can do is sketch not so much the biography but the profile the Gospel gives us.

He is always present on the list of the twelve chosen by Jesus (cf. Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). His name, in Hebrew, means “gift of God.” The first canonical Gospel, which bears his name, presents him to us in the list of the Twelve with a very specific qualification: “the publican” (Matthew 10:3).

For this reason, he is identified with the man seated 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).

Also Mark (cf. 2:13-17) and Luke (cf. 5:27-30) narrate the call of the man sitting at the tax office, but they call him “Levi.” To imagine the scene described in Mathew 9:9 suffice it to remember the magnificent canvas of Caravaggio, kept here, in Rome, in the French Church of St. Louis.

A new biographical detail emerges from the Gospels: In the passage, which precedes the narration of the call, reference is made to a miracle Jesus performed in Capernaum (cf. Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12) mentioning the proximity of the Sea of Galilee, that is, of the Lake of Tiberias (cf. Mark 2:13-14).

One can deduce that Mathew carried out the function of tax collector in Capernaum, located precisely “by the sea” (Matthew 4:13), where Jesus was a steady guest in Peter’s house.

Basing ourselves on these simple observations that arise from the Gospel, we can make a couple of reflections. The first is that Jesus welcomes in the group of his close friends a man who, according to the conception of that time in Israel, was regarded as a public sinner.

Matthew, in fact, not only managed money, considered impure as it came from people foreign to the people of God, but in addition collaborated with a foreign authority, odiously avid, whose tributes could be determined arbitrarily.

For these reasons, on more than one occasion, the Gospels mention together “publicans and sinners” (Matthew 9:10; Luke 15:1), “publicans and prostitutes” (Matthew 21:31). Moreover, they see in publicans an example of avarice (cf. Matthew 5:46: they only love those who love them) and mention one of them, Zacchaeus, as “chief tax collector, and rich” (Luke 18:11).

Given these references, there is a fact that calls attention: Jesus excludes no one from his friendship. More than that, precisely when he is seated at the table in Matthew-Levi’s house, answering those who were scandalized by the fact of his frequenting rather undesirable company, he makes the important declaration: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

The good proclamation of the Gospel consists precisely in this, in the offering of God’s grace to the sinner! In another passage, with the famous parable of the Pharisee and the publican who went up to the Temple to pray, Jesus even points to an anonymous publican as example of humble confidence in divine mercy: While the Pharisee boasted of moral perfection, “the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!'”

And Jesus commented: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).

With the figure of Matthew, therefore, the Gospels present us an authentic paradox: He who seems to be farthest from holiness might well become a model of acceptance of God’s mercy enabling one to glimpse its marvelous effects in his life.

In this connection, St. John Chrysostom makes a significant comment: He observes that only in the narration of some of the calls is the work mentioned in which those in question were engaged. Peter, Andrew, James and John were called while they were fishing; Matthew while he collected taxes.

They are jobs of little importance, comments Chrysostom: “As there is nothing that is more detestable than the tax collector and nothing more ordinary than fishing” (“In Matth. Hom”: PL 57, 363).

The call of Jesus comes, therefore, also to people of a low social level, while they are engaged in their ordinary work.

There is another reflection that arises from the Gospel narrative: Matthew responds immediately to Jesus’ call: “He rose and followed him.” The conciseness of the phrase underlines clearly Matthew’s promptness in response to the call.

This meant for him abandoning everything, especially a sure source of income, though often unjust and dishonorable. Obviously Matthew understood that familiarity with Jesus did not allow him to continue with activities disapproved by God.

One can easily intuit that it can also be applied to the present: Today one cannot admit attachment to what is incompatible with the following of Jesus, as are dishonest riches. Once he said openly: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).

This is precisely what Matthew did: He rose and followed him! In this “rising” one can see the detachment from a situation of sin and, at the same time, the conscious adherence to a new life, upright, in communion with Jesus.

We recall, finally, that the tradition of the early Church agrees with attributing the authorship of the first Gospel to Matthew. This was already the case beginning with Papias, bishop of Gerapolis in Phrygia, about the year 130.

He wrote: “Matthew took up the Lord’s words in Hebrew, and each one interpreted them as he could” (in Eusebius of Caesarea, “Hist. eccl.”, III, 39, 16). The historian Eusebius adds this detail: “Matthew, who previously had preached to the Jews, when he decided to go also to other peoples, wrote in their maternal tongue the Gospel he was proclaiming: In this way he tried to substitute in writing what they, whom he was leaving, lost with his departure” (Ibid., III, 24, 6).

We no longer have the Gospel written by Matthew in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in the Greek Gospel that has come down to us we still continue to hear, in a certain sense, the persuasive voice of the publican Matthew who, in becoming an apostle, continues proclaiming to us the saving mercy of God.

Let us hear this message of St. Matthew, let us meditate on it always again so that we also will learn to rise and follow Jesus with determination.

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~ by Rob on August 31, 2006.

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