ST MATTHEW’S FEAST DAY
Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do… I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” – Matthew 9:12-13
On September 21, we celebrate the feast of this sinner-turned saint, Saint Matthew the Apostle. Jesus shocked the religious teachers of his day in many ways; perhaps one of the most prominent examples was his association with sinners. Chief among these was Matthew, a tax collector. His commitment to follow Christ demonstrates that God has the power to transform the most depraved sinner into a saint for his glory.
A Tax Collector’s Reputation
In ancient times, tax collectors were notorious for being dishonest, greedy individuals. They would often exploit taxpayers by exacting more than was required by the state and pocketing the difference for themselves. This behaviour earned tax collectors a great deal of enmity from the public. Negative public opinion of Matthew may also have been exacerbated by his lineage: as a Galilean son of the tribe of Levi, he was likely viewed as sympathetic to the occupying Romans.
But Matthew’s example of faith demonstrates that Jesus can redeem any sinner. When Jesus first saw Matthew at his customs post, he said “Follow me.” Matthew’s response was one of immediate obedience – he directly abandoned his position and became one of Jesus’ disciples.
Given the unfavourable status of tax collectors, many in the community were critical when they heard that Jesus dined with Matthew:
While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” – Matthew 9:10-13
Though little else is known about the life of St. Matthew, we know that he was close to Jesus, becoming an apostle and authoring one of the four gospel accounts. The Gospel according to Matthew was likely written for a Christianized Jewish audience, evidenced by its distinctive continuity with Hebrew tradition and the Old Testament. The account contains nearly one hundred references to and nearly sixty direct quotations from the Old Testament. A clear theme of fulfilment is evident throughout. One such example is in Matthew 1:22-23: he mentions that Jesus’ birth took place to fulfil the prophecy foretold by Isaiah.
Saint Matthew the Apostle serves as an example that Christ came to save all who are lost – the greatest of sinners chief amongst them. “For those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do” (Matthew 9:13).
Pause & consider, if you would like, your own call to Christ
Study the painting and see what God is saying through art
The finest representation I know of the calling of Matthew is Caravaggio’s great painting in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, in Rome.
Five men are gathered around a table in the customs house, all elegantly dressed in silks and velvets, with plumes in their hats, earnestly engaged in counting coins. There is a window in the wall, high above the table, but there is no light from that source. The table is in deep shadow – this is a place of “craftiness and hidden things of dishonesty.”
But the scene is interrupted by a ray of light from some unseen source, and by the appearance of Christ, with a rather unkempt St. Peter, both barefoot and clad in rough garments. The arm of Christ is outstretched, point a finger at Matthew. Two men at the table remain completely engrossed in their counting; two others have turned to look at the intruders, and wear expressions of disdainful incomprehension.
But Matthew, his hand just in that moment drawn back from the coins, is arrested by the luminous countenance of Christ. He alone has discerned “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” That is his conversion and his calling.
Reflect on the words of Dante
You might appropriate to that arrested figure of Matthew what Dante says in his own vision of glory, in the Paradiso:
And so my mind, bedazzled and amazed,
Stood fixed in wonder, motionless, intent,
And still my wonder kindled as I gazed.
That light doth so transform a man’s whole bent
That never to another sight or thought
Would he surrender, with his own consent;
For everything the will has ever sought
Is gathered there, and there is every quest
Made perfect, which apart from it falls short.
COLLECT FOR ST MATTHEW’S DAY
We thank you, heavenly Father,
for the witness of your apostle
and evangelist Matthew
to the Gospel of your Son our Saviour;
and we pray that, after his example,
we may with ready wills and hearts
obey the calling of our Lord to follow him;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.