Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist
During the last few years, especially with the pontificate of Benedict XVI, there has been considerable discussion about the continuity of the Second Vatican Council with the councils preceding it. It is a matter of harmony of doctrine. This converges with similar concern about the faith-cohesiveness of church membership, that is, whether the body of beliefs to which all Catholics should adhere is becoming diluted. Is the faith understanding of the contemporary Catholic in continuity with the belief of earlier generations of Catholics?
As we recall the memory of St. Matthew today, the church suggests some biblical references for us, that suggest he has relevance for us, in view of the above remarks. One set of these comes from a letter of St. Paul to the church in Ephesus, in which he urges its membership to bear with one another, to preserve its unity, to recognize the diversity of graces given by God to the church membership, to see this working out in a variety of vocational activities such as those of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, etc., until, as he says, all attain the desired unity, thereby indicating that it hadn’t been achieved yet. Not everyone saw eye to eye in Ephesus.
And then the church has selected a few biographical snippets from the life story of Matthew, recalling that he had been employed as a customs official (presumably working for the Roman authorities), and that, having accepted Jesus’ invitation to be His follower, he threw a banquet at his home, probably to celebrate his good fortune at this honor conferred on him by Jesus, with its potential to counteract his unsavory reputation among his Jewish compatriots because of his previous occupation. And whom does he invite to this meal (together with Jesus) but his long-standing friends and companions (tax collectors and sinners, which were apparently interchangeable terms), thereby provoking criticism from tax-paying Pharisees: why does Jesus (and Matthew), eat with these folk? So Jesus used this occasion to clarify His mission: "I did not come to call the righteous but sinners". There was an inclusion problem that concerned Matthew: early on, his inclusion in the Jewish community, later on, his desire to show a certain continuity and similarity between the Jewish and Christian communities.
The gospel of Matthew preserves this snippet in the gospel bearing his name, highlighting that he had been one of those less than desirable people. More to the point, the author decided to record this incident with an eye to those Jewish persons who had their problems with Matthew in his wayward days, trying to account for the growing opposition between what Jesus was about, and what traditional Judaism stood for. Perhaps he wanted to save his Jewish associates of earlier days from experiencing disapproval from the new Christian way that Matthew had earlier received from them. If so, this would be a helpful lesson for us all.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.