St Matthew the Apostle
1 of the 12 Apostles; 1 of the 4 Evangelists; Martyr
Died near Hierapolis or Ethiopia
Feast Day - 21st September
Catechesis by Papa Benedict XVI
General Audience, Wednesday, 30 August 2006 - in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
"Dear brothers and sisters,
Continuing the series of portraits of the twelve Apostles that we began a few weeks ago, today we are dwelling on Matthew. In truth, it is almost impossible to outline his character fully because the information we have about him is scarce and fragmentary. What we can do, however, is to outline not so much his biography as the profile that the Gospel transmits of him.
In the meantime, he is always present in the lists of the Twelve chosen by Jesus (cf Mt 10, 3; Mk 3, 18; Lk 6, 15; Acts 1, 13). His Hebraic name means "gift of God". The first canonical Gospel, which goes under his name, presents him to us in the list of the Twelve with a very precise qualification: "the tax collector" (Mt 10, 3). In this way he is identified with the man sitting at the tax office, whom Jesus calls to follow him: "Going on from there, Jesus saw a man sitting at the tax office, called Matthew, and he said to him, "Follow me'. And he rose and followed him" (Mt 9, 9). Mark (cf 2, 13-17) and Luke (cf 5, 27-30) also recount the calling of the man sitting at the tax office, but they call him "Levi". To imagine the scene described in Matthew 9, 9, it suffices to recall Caravaggio's magnificent canvas, preserved here in Rome in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. A further biographical detail emerges from the Gospels: in the passage immediately preceding the account of the call is the report of a miracle accomplished by Jesus at Capernaum (cf Mt 9, 1-8; Mk 2, 1-12) and it mentions the proximity to the Sea of Galilee, that is, the Lake of Tiberias (cf Mk 2, 13-14). One can deduce from this that Matthew exercised the function of tax collector at Capernaum, located precisely "by the sea" (Mt 4, 13), where Jesus was a fixed guest at Peter's house.
On the basis of these simple findings that result from the Gospel, we can advance a pair of reflections. The first is that Jesus welcomed into the group of his close friends a man who, according to the concepts in vogue in Israel at that time, was considered a public sinner. Matthew, in fact, not only handled money deemed impure because of its provenance from people foreign to the people of God, but he also collaborated with a foreign and odiously greedy authority, whose tributes moreover could be determined arbitrarily. For these reasons, the Gospels more than once speak jointly of "tax collectors and sinners" (Mt 9, 10; Lk 15, 1), of "tax collectors and prostitutes" (Mt 21, 31). Furthermore, they see tax collectors as an example of meanness (cf Mt 5, 46: they love only those who love them), and mention one of them, Zacchaeus, as "a leader of tax collectors and a rich man" (Lk 19, 2), while popular opinion associated them with "extortioners, the unjust, adulterers" (Lk 18, 11). Based on these references, a first fact catches the eye: Jesus does not exclude anyone from his friendship. Rather, precisely while he is at table in Matthew-Levi's house, in response to those who expressed scandal at the fact that he associated with such disreputable company, Jesus pronounced the important statement: "It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick; I did not come to call the righteous but sinners" (Mk 2, 17).
The good news of the Gospel consists precisely in this: in the offering of God's grace to the sinner! Elsewhere, with the famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the Temple to pray, Jesus even indicates an anonymous tax collector as an valuable example of humble trust in divine mercy: while the Pharisee is boasting of his own moral perfection, the "tax collector... did not even dare to lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, "O God, have mercy on me a sinner!'" And Jesus comments: "I tell you: this man returned home justified, unlike the other man, because the one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted" (Lk 18, 13-14). In the figure of Matthew, therefore, the Gospels propose to us a true and proper paradox: the one who is apparently farthest from holiness can even become a model of welcome of God's mercy and leave a glimpse of its wonderful effects in their own existence. In this regard, St John Chrysostom makes a significant annotation: he observes that it is only in the narrative of certain calls that the work of those concerned is mentioned. Peter, Andrew, James and John are called while they are fishing, Matthew precisely while he is collecting tithes. These are jobs of little account - comments John Chrysostom - "because there is nothing more detestable than tax collecting and nothing more common than fishing" (In Matth Hom: PL 57, 363). Jesus' call, therefore, also reaches people of low social class, while they are going about their ordinary work.
Another reflection, which comes from the Gospel narrative, is that Matthew responds instantly to Jesus' call: "he got up and followed him". The brevity of the sentence puts clearly into evidence Matthew's readiness in responding to the call. For him this meant the abandonment of everything, above all of that which guaranteed him a source of secure income, even if it was often unfair and dishonourable. Evidently Matthew understood that familiarity with Jesus did not allow him to persevere in activities deprecated by God. It is easy to intuit the application of this to the present time: today it is also not admissible to be attached to things that are incompatible with following Jesus, as in the case of dishonest riches. One time Jesus said in no uncertain terms: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you possess, give to the poor and you will have treasure in the kingdom of heaven; then come and follow me" (Mt 19, 21). This is exactly what Matthew did: he got up and followed him! In this "getting up", it is legitimate to read a detachment from a sinful situation and also a conscious adherence to a new, right existence, in communion with Jesus.
Lastly, let us recall that the tradition of the ancient Church is concordant in attributing to Matthew the paternity of the first Gospel. This was happening way back with Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis in Frisia around the year 130. He wrote: "Matthew set down the words (of the Lord) in the Hebrew language, and everyone interpreted them as best they could" (in Eusebius of Cesarea, Hist Eccl III, 39, 16). The historian Eusebius adds this news: "Matthew, who had first preached among the Jews, when he decided to go also to other peoples wrote in his mother tongue the Gospel he preached; thus he sought to put in writing, for those whom he was leaving, what they would be losing 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 in which we still continue to hear, in a certain way, the persuasive voice of the tax collector Matthew who, having become an Apostle, keeps announcing to us the saving mercy of God. May we listen to this message of Saint Matthew, meditating upon it ever anew so as to to learn also for ourselves to get up and follow Jesus with decision."