Matthew worked for the Romans as a tax collector. No one likes taxes, but anti-tax-collector animosity was especially intense in ancient Israel during the first century of the Christian era. In the Gospels tax collectors (also known as publicans) are frequently mentioned in the same breath as harlots.
If tax collectors had a lousy reputation 2,000 years ago, they deserved it. Under the Romans, taxes on income, personal property, imports and exports were subcontracted to private individuals. In exchange for paying the Romans a fee up front for the right to collect taxes, these freelance taxmen were given free rein to overcharge or extort as much as they could squeeze out of the tax-paying public. Once tax season was over, the collectors rendered to Caesar what was Caesar’s, and pocketed whatever was left over.
The people of ancient Israel had a special loathing for Jewish tax collectors: they regarded them as shameless crooks who committed the two-fold crime of collaborating with heathens and preying upon their own people.
Matthew, also called Levi in the Gospels of St. Mark and St. Luke, collected taxes in Capernaum. He was sitting at his table in the customs house, shaking down his neighbors, when Jesus Christ walked by. Our Lord had just healed a paralyzed man; now he was about to reconcile a sinner. “Follow Me,” Christ said. To the surprise of the Roman guards, the clerks and the taxpayers, Matthew got up, left the money where it lay on the table, turned his back on a life of government-sanctioned larceny and joined the handful of men we know as the Twelve Apostles.
From an early date Christians attributed one of the Gospels to St. Matthew. We owe to Matthew such unique features as St. Joseph’s plan to divorce the Blessed Virgin Mary, the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem, King Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, a great part of the Sermon on the Mount, the Parable of the Sower, the metaphor of the sheep and the goats at the Last Judgment, the suicide of Judas, and the account of the guards placed at Christ’s tomb.
There is no reliable record of what Matthew did after the first Pentecost when the Apostles scattered to preach the Gospel. He may have gone to Ethiopia, or to the region near the Caspian Sea those two destinations are mentioned most often in the old sources. There is even a claim that St. Matthew introduced Christianity to Ireland. His later life is a mystery. Tradition says that he died a martyr, cut down with a sword as he said Mass, though we aren’t even sure about that. But we are sure that the life of this former tax collector will always be a testimony to the transforming grace of Christ.
Thomas Craughwell is the author of Saints for Every Occasion (Stampley Enterprises, 2001).
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)