On St. Matthew

St. Matthew by Frans Hals…”



September 22 is the Feast Day for “St Matthew, Evangelist (transferred),” as in “transferred from September 21, which this year fell on a Sunday.”   According to the Bible, he was “one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and, according to Christian tradition, one of the four Evangelists.”  See Matthew the Apostle – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, which added:

Matthew was a 1st-century Galilean (presumably born in Galilee[,] the son of Alpheus.   As a tax collector he would have been literate in Aramaic and Greek.  After his call, Matthew invited Jesus home for a feast.  On seeing this, the Scribes and the Pharisees criticized Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners.  This prompted Jesus to answer, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

The Old Testament reading for the day is Proverbs 3:1-6, which begins, “My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments.”  (As aptly illustrated by the Frans Hals painting above.)   The psalm for the Feast Day is Psalm 119:33-40, which begins in like manner, “Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end.”   And as author of the first of four Gospels, Matthew “fit the bill” as a preeminent teacher.

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

That’s from Second Timothy 3:14-17, the New Testament reading for the day, which gives a pithy summary of the benefits of reading “all scripture,” and especially the four Gospels, and more especially the first of the four Gospels, the one by Matthew.  And not surprisingly, the Gospel reading for the day is Matthew 9:9-13, which gave the following account:

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.”  And he got up and followed him.  And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples.

It was at this point that the Pharisees got all bent out of shape – metaphorically speaking – mostly because in the Bible times of Jesus, tax collectors worked for the Roman forces of occupation and so were viewed as collaborators, “Quislings,” and/or traitors to their country:

Tax collectors, also known as publicans, are mentioned many times in the Bible (mainly in the New Testament).  They were reviled by the Jews of Jesus’ day because of their greed and collaboration with the Roman occupiers.  Tax collectors amassed personal wealth by demanding tax payments in excess of what Rome levied and keeping the difference.   They worked for tax farmers.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sympathizes with the tax collector Zacchaeus, causing outrage from the crowds that Jesus would rather be the guest of a sinner than of a more respectable or “righteous” person.  Saint Matthew in the New Testament was a tax collector.

See Tax collector – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, and the Wikipedia article on tax farmers.

Isaac Asimov offered another view of why such persons were held in such low esteem:

No tax collector … is actually going to be loved, but a “publican” of the Roman sort was sure to be hated above all men as a merciless leech who would take the shirt off a dying child.  It is not to be wondered at, then, that the word “publican” is used as representing an extreme of wickedness in the Sermon on the Mount.

(Asimov, 829-31)   The “Beatitude” referred to is Matthew 5:46, in the Complete Jewish Bible:  “What reward do you get if you love only those who love you?   Why, even tax-collectors do that!”    As Asimov noted, “The publicans here are held up as an extreme.  If even the publicans can do this, anyone can,” the point being that according to the Gospel of Jesus, “those who wish ethical perfection must do more.”

The other point being, that by the grace of God, Matthew the hated tax-collecting collaborator was “magically” transformed into a Gospel writer of the first magnitude, and that “if he can be so greatly transformed, so can we!”    Or as a biographer wrote of another prophet, he was an ordinary man with more than a fair share of human faults, but it was just such “base metal which, in the marvelous alchemy of the spiritual journey, became transmuted into gold.”



The upper and lower images are courtesy of Matthew the Apostle – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  As to the lower image, Wikipedia added the caption, “St. Matthew and the Angel by Rembrandt.”   An alternate title is “The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel.” 

The Isaac Asimov quotes are from  Asimov’s Guide to the Bible (Two Volumes in One),  Avenel Books (1981), at pages 829-31.

A quisling is one “who collaborates with an enemy occupying force.  The word originates from the Norwegian war-time leader Vidkun Quisling who was the head of a domestic Nazi collaborationist regime during the Second World War.”  See Quisling – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, which added, “in a 1966 Peanuts comic strip, Linus tries to hide in Snoopy‘s doghouse only to have the beagle rat him out.  ‘Traitor! Quisling! Squealer!‘  Linus shouts at Snoopy as his sister Lucy drags him away.”

The “transmuted into gold” quote is from Monica Furlong’s Merton  A Biography, Harper and Row (1980), at page xx.  See also On Thomas Merton.


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