Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-13
Today we celebrate the life and accomplishments of Matthew, an early disciple and apostle of Jesus. There is an interesting blend of diversity and similarity in his life, that is apparent in the bible readings chosen by the church for the day.
In the first place, there is the question of his name. More generally known as Matthew, yet the name Levi seems to have been applied to him by one of the evangelists, Mark. No other apostle seems to have gone by a set of different names, with the possible exception of Nathanael/Bartholomew. Another instance of this interplay between similarity and diversity associated with Matthew is his occupation. He was a tax collector, a pursuit in life somewhat different from that followed by several of the other apostles of Jesus, who were fishermen. And, in his trade, he would have been pursuing a “less honorable” source of income than they—the fate of all such government workers down through the ages, but especially distasteful to Jewish society, for a Jew on the Roman payroll. And he didn’t seem inclined to downplay that distinctiveness of his when, accepting Jesus’ call to follow Him, he threw a party for Jesus, of course, but also for his own friends and associates, among whom were his fellow tax collectors, as the gospel today makes clear.
And so, perhaps in an effort to continue a presumably lifelong effort at finding some acceptance in his own Jewish community, he subsequently proceeded, during the years following his association with Jesus as His follower, to write a gospel about Him, in which he emphasized how the work and ministry that Jesus set about doing was, in many ways, an extension or development of mainline Judaism, and not a radical departure from what practicing Jews believed and committed themselves to. Early on, Matthew may have seen his discipleship of Jesus as a way of strengthening his Jewish rootedness and overcoming any repugnance some of his fellow Jews may have felt toward him for his Roman connections.
Against this background it is helpful to reflect on St. Paul’s words today, apparently from a prison cell, addressed to the church community he created in Ephesus. Perhaps the church today chooses his remarks as an appropriate way of appreciating what Matthew had to face, during a good part of his life, in pursuing an off-putting trade, and of ingratiating himself with a community of his own people finding him somewhat unacceptable. For St. Paul makes a touching appeal to the Ephesian church he founded to find some fellowship among themselves, given all the things holding them together, that their common belief in Christ Jesus maintained: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. And he goes on to point out how, in the church community at Ephesus, even though there was a variety of ministries and functions: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, such diversity was quite compatible with a basic unity binding them all together in Christ.
Paul’s words are apt for remembering the kind of experiences someone like Matthew had to undergo, and for explaining the particular kind of emphasis he gave to the gospel he wrote for future believers: an account stressing the continuity between discipleship of Jesus and the Jewish heritage out of which it flowed. Matthew had his “fill” of being different, and was anxious to establish bonds of relationship with those who held him at arm’s length. In many ways this was Paul’s concern in writing this letter to the Ephesian church. And it corresponds to an obvious concern of Pope Francis regarding those persons kept on the fringes of church life, as he fashions his appeals for the alienated, the rejected and the outsider to “come back in”.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.