The Gift of God: How a Tax Collector Became an Evangelist

Oscar Wilde famously observed that “the only difference between saints and sinners is that every saint has a past while every sinner has a future.”  This adage finds confirmation when applied to St. Matthew, apostle and evangelist.

In trying to learn more about St. Matthew, as is the case with the other synoptic gospel writers, we discover very little about his life.  This truth should not surprise us since their aim was to preach their Master and not themselves.  The nearest we come to more information of Matthew’s background is found in the listing of the twelve apostles where he identifies himself as a “tax collector” (Mt 10:3). The story of his transformation from tax collector to disciple is found in the first three gospels. We are introduced to the future evangelist after Christ’s spectacular healing of a paralyzed man in Capernaum.  Matthew relates his own commissioning to follow Christ in a simple and succinct scene: “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” (Mt 9:9). The dramatic directness of Christ’s invitation and the ready response of the addressee should easily capture the imagination. Perhaps his curiosity had been previously piqued by this itinerant rabbi’s preaching or maybe this was his first introduction to Christ.

Matthew’s profession before Christ’s call was that of a tax collector or publican.  Because there really is nothing new under the sun, it should suffice to note that tax collectors were a particularly despised segment of society.  Matthew was likely collecting taxes for Herod Antipas, the decapitator of the Baptist and complicit Herod of the Passion; part of the money would be handed on to the occupying power, Rome. As long as the revenue expected was passed on to the authorities, it was not a concern if more funds were extracted from the locals for the tax collector’s personal use.  Therefore, because of his profession, Matthew would likely have been viewed by his fellow Israelites as a thief, a traitor, and a transgressor of the Torah.

Christ’s entrance into Matthew’s life and his invitation to a new life of apostleship is truly extraordinary. His future with Christ will have an ironic hint to his previous life.  Just as the Galilean fishermen moved from catching fish to “catching” souls, so Matthew will convert from collecting taxes to “collecting” souls in the order of grace.  To signify the transition from his sinful past to his new adventure, it is entirely possible that his name changed.  In reading the parallel accounts of Matthew’s call in Mark and Luke one notices that they do not call him “Matthew” but rather, “Levi” (Mk 2:14; Lk 5:27).  Did Mark and Luke, as some have speculated, avoid calling the new convert “Matthew” because they wanted to be somewhat ambiguous about his past life?  Or did he have two names? It was not uncommon in the first century to have two different names, sometimes two Hebrew names, or one Hebrew and one Greek.

 

Is “Matthew” the new name he chose, or better yet, the name given to Levi by Christ himself?  In the gospel narratives, Jesus does bestow new names to some of his apostles which relate to their future, not their past—Simon becomes Peter, the Rock, while James and John become Boanerges, the sons of thunder.  Perhaps Levi becomes Matthew, whose name means “gift of God.”  When Matthew composed his gospel he chose not to refer to himself as Levi in the entirety of his text.  That name represented his “old life” and his “old identity.”  He had received the “gift of God” by his salvation from a sinful past.

Matthew also recognized that this “gift of God” was meant for others and not only for himself.  The very next scene in the gospel reads: “And as [Jesus] sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples” (Mt 9:10).  It is clear in the other synoptic accounts that the house Jesus enters is Matthew’s. Levi, now called Matthew, has been so transformed by his encounter with the Lord that he immediately hosts a banquet in order to invite his colleagues from work (“tax collectors”) and the rest of the lot he associates with (“sinners”) to meet Jesus.  The newly minted evangelist is keenly aware that his new identity carries with it the new mission to bring as many people as possible to encounter Christ.  He felt it necessary to create the opportunity for those in his life to meet the Lord who had so radically changed his own life.

While Matthew abandons all sinful behavior to follow the Lord, he does bring his solicitude for the salvation of others into his future life with Christ.  Out of all the disciples of the Lord, Matthew brings a particular set of skills to the apostolic band.  Because of his profession, he would likely have been literate, fluent in Hebrew and Greek, and good at keeping accounts.  Although it is not related in Scripture that Jesus commanded his apostles to chronicle his life, it does seem possible that Matthew kept a running travel log of his journeys with the Messiah around Palestine which may have served as a rough outline for his future gospel.

Tradition testifies to Matthew’s authorship of the gospel which bears his name. The circumstantial reasons which surround the composition of the gospel remain shrouded by history.  It could have been at the bidding of the apostles eager for a catechetical tool as they readied to evangelize the world.  Perhaps it was composed at the pleading of the nascent Christian community desiring the presence of his preaching if they were to suffer his physical absence.  Regardless of the answer, Matthew wrote because he could not keep this gift to himself.  In a private revelation given to St. Bridget of Sweden at his tomb, Matthew told her, “when I was writing my Gospel, so intense was the heat of the Divine flame which abode with me, that even if I had wished to keep silence, I could not, because of that burning heat.”  Love of God for this gift he had received and love of neighbor for the gift they can receive motivated Matthew in his mission to spread the gospel first by its proclamation and ultimately by its publication.

One might speculate, then, that these are some of the reasons which motivated Pope Benedict XVI to establish the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization on the feast of St. Matthew in 2010.  The first words of sacred scripture quoted in the document come from Matthew’s holy gospel:  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).  Perhaps the Holy Father is also drawing our attention to the moment of Matthew’s conversion and the method of his evangelization.  Matthew’s response to Jesus’ call is immediate, complete, and other-focused.  Matthew’s method of sharing the gospel is to first bring it to those closest to him and then to the rest of the world.  Matthew knew that an authentic encounter with the living and true God—even if one was the most hardened of sinners—would always lead to the desire to bring that message to others.

Matthew was present at the Ascension when Jesus commanded his apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19).  He was emboldened by the Spirit at Pentecost to spread the fragrance of the gospel to the four corners of the world—as pious legend has it—to Ethiopia, Persia, and Parthia.  He was a recipient of the gift of God in his life and would wholeheartedly witness to it with the final gift of his blood shed in love for the Lord who saved him.

Today, Matthew is revered as a saint by the Church, not for what he did in his sinful past, but because of his response to Christ’s invitation for a future.

Ben Akers

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Ben Akers is the Director of the Denver Catholic Biblical School and the Denver Catholic Catechetical School.

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