St. Matthew: From Tax Collector to Author of a Gospel

· Biblical,Apostle,Bishop,Martyr
Saint Matthew: From Tax Collector to Author of a Gospel from Letters from the Saints Blog with an image of Saint Matthew holding a book

As a general rule, the New Testament is fairly short on many of the biographical details about important characters that we might expect. For instance, we are not told really anything about the physical appearance of our Lord Jesus or the Blessed Virgin Mary or the disciples. In fact, when it comes to the disciples, for many of them, we do not have too much information at all.

Certainly, this can be explained by the fact that the various authors of the New Testament had a purpose for writing that did not include the need to provide such details. In other words, what the authors were trying to communicate did not require them to provide all of the intimate details that we might have wanted to read.

Matthew's Short Story

Regarding, St. Matthew, we do not have that much information from the Bible. The essential story we know is that he was a tax collector who one day was called by the Lord to follow Him, and Matthew quit his job immediately and followed Jesus. Later, when Jesus selected the Twelve, Matthew was among the group.

Some other facts we know are that Matthew, which means "a gift from God", seems to have been his Greek name whereas his Hebrew name is Levi. It certainly was not uncommon for someone to have a Hebrew name and a Greek name.

Of course, Levi is an interesting name for one of the Twelve because Levi was the name of one of the tribes of Israel. And, by choosing twelve disciples, Jesus was demonstrating that he was reconstituting the nation of Israel under twelve men, even as the twelve tribes had been the foundation for Israel.

Another interesting note is that the tribe of Levi was the tribe from which all priests came. For instance, Moses and Aaron were from the tribe of Levi, and Aaron was the first high priest. Of course, Matthew would become a priest of the New Covenant at the Last Supper when Jesus consecrated the Twelve as priests. Thus, Matthew, received the fullness of the new priesthood which fulfilled his Hebrew name of Levi.

Another detail we learn from St. Mark's Gospel is that Matthew is the son of Alphaeus. That makes Matthew the brother of two other disciples--St. James the Lesser (lesser probably means he was smaller than the other James, not less in importance) and St. Simeon. And, that also means that Matthew, and of course, his brothers, are related to Jesus through marriage. As Alphaeus is considered to the be the brother of St. Joseph, the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

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A Despised Tax Collector

Matthew had been a tax collector before he became a disciple. Tax collectors have never been overly popular in any culture and time, but they were particularly despised by the Jewish people of the first century because they were considered traitors. In Palestine, the Romans hired Jews to collect taxes for them and Matthew, apparently was one of them.

Although there was a spectrum of viewpoints among the Jews regarding the Romans, no one was happy to see a fellow Jew come along to take your money to give it to the Romans.

Also, it is important to understand how the taxes were collected. The Romans would simply set an amount that they expected the tax collector to deliver to them. In fact, the tax collector would pay the fee to the Romans first. Essentially, after that, the Romans were not overly concerned about how the taxes were collected. Any extra money collected by the tax collector could be pocketed by the tax collectors. As you can see, the system was ripe for abuse, and that is exactly what happened. Consequently, many tax collectors were very wealthy, but extremely unpopular. (Remember Zacchaeus the tax collector.)

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The Call

From the account in the Gospels, we learn that Jesus called Matthew, and Matthew got up from his table and left everything to follow Jesus.

It certainly is possible that this was the first encounter Matthew had with Jesus, and his leaving it all behind was as dramatic as that would seem to be.

However, it is also possible that Matthew might have encountered Jesus before, and at this personal invitation from Him, he responded to Jesus by forsaking his old life for a new one. In other words, Matthew might have been seeking for something more. Perhaps, he had found his life empty although it was filled with money.

In either case, when Matthew found the treasure who is Christ, he knew it was worth more than anything he had or would have. Thus, like the man in the parable he sold everything he had to buy the field with the buried treasure. And unlike the rich young man who approached Jesus, he was not so strongly attached to his money or his position that he could not take action and follow Jesus. Instead, Matthew gave up everything for Jesus.

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After Pentecost

From the rest of the New Testament, we do not know anything more about Matthew.

Regarding his life after Pentecost, we have information from various extra-Biblical sources. Many early Christian writers are quite clear that Matthew wrote the Gospel that bears his name. These sources also note that the Gospel was originally written in Aramaic which was the language that Jesus and his disciples would have spoken and then it was translated into Greek.

In 392, St. Jerome in writing about Matthew's Gospel notes that there are copies of the original Gospel in its original language in the library of Caesarea. However, today, there are no known copies of an Aramaic version of the Matthew's Gospel.

One of the emphases of Matthew's Gospel is that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. He often writes that some action or words of Jesus were to fulfill a specific passage from a book in the Old Testament. The assumption is that his Gospel might have been written to Jews who wanted to know if Jesus is truly the Messiah who was promised by God. Matthew's answer is an emphatic yes.

St. Clement of Alexandria gives us the most information about Matthew. He indicates that he was a vegetarian who lived on nuts, seeds, and vegetables. Matthew was also supposed to have spent fifteen years ministering in the area of Jerusalem.

After that, there is some inexactitude about where he went next. The most likely scenario is that he went to Ethiopia. At that time, there were Jews living in the flourishing kingdom of Ethiopia so Matthew would have found an immediate audience for his sharing of the Gospel. One account indicates that he was invited to come by the Ethiopian whom Philip the deacon had baptized.

It then seems that Matthew went to one or all of the following: Persia (modern day Iran), Syria, and Macedonia. Eventually, he was martyred under the persecution by Domitian around the year 90.

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