Feast of St. Matthew, Apostle
St. Matthew recommends himself to us today because he represents what so many of us have had to do in the course of our lives: rework our relationship to the demands of our religious faith. Few of us have an unblemished track record of fidelity to the faith into which we were incorporated by our baptism. Those of us who are concerned about this do well to reflect on the saint whose memory we recall today.
For we value the memory of the apostle St. Matthew. He had the privilege of being one of the first disciples called by Jesus Christ, not long after Peter, Andrew, James and John. He might have been one of the better educated among this group, to the extent that his job as tax collector likely placed certain requirements on him that would not have been called for by the background of the other apostles, such as Peter and Andrew, for example. And this seems somewhat substantiated by the way he organized his recollections, in later years, about Jesus in such a way that it made its way into that venerable collection of memories and recollections called gospels. For we now refer to the gospel of Matthew, along with that of Mark, Luke and John.
And his gospel is noteworthy because it has the stamp of Jewishness about it, perhaps more so than the other three, because Matthew was likely quite intent on establishing his credentials as a loyal son of Abraham, given his occupation as tax-collector and thereby a collaborator, in some form or fashion, with the Roman occupiers of the land. That would not have endeared him to his fellow-Jews, and probably tainted his reputation as he collected Jewish tax money on behalf of the Roman occupiers. So he may have welcomed the invitation Jesus held out to him to join the ranks of this already well-known Jewish spokesperson. Matthew may have seen this invitation as a way of reintegrating himself with his Jewish background.
He is an instance of what our reading from the letter to the Ephesians addresses today: the theme of unity amid diversity. For St. Paul, incarcerated in prison, writes on the theme of unity, urging the church in Ephesus “to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”, and later on in that same letter Paul vindicates the already growing diversification in the church of Ephesus (apostles, prophets, evangelists, etc.), not as detrimental to the unity of the Christian faith they profess, but as contributing to it. As a result, Matthew too may have felt vindicated by this variety in the church.
So it must have been a relief for him to leave his customs post at the invitation of this young popular leader, even to the extent of throwing a party for Jesus and His disciples, along with some of the crowd that had been the friends and associates of Matthew: tax collectors and sinners. Jesus accepted his invitation and seemed quite comfortable with the table fellowship that developed.
So Matthew left his mark on the early beginnings of the church. His gospel reflects the relationship of our early Christian church with the Jewish religious faith. It is an important source for noting details of this relationship, and much credit for this goes to Matthew, who, in the process of purging any misgivings about his own Jewish background, serves to illustrate the example of an early relationship between Judaism and Christianity.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.