Week by week, we read the Gospel story and rarely stop to think about the writers, those who wrote down the story of Jesus. If they had not set down in writing what they saw and were told, would our faith and our church ever have reached us?
Matthew the writer of the first Gospel is accepted by the church to be Matthew the tax collector from Capernaum who was called by Jesus in Matthew 9:9 to be one of the Twelve. He is named as one of the apostles, in Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13. It is widely accepted that Matthew is referred to by the name of Levi, son of Alphaeus, in Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27.
Matthew came from the province of Galilee, which, unlike the province of Judea, was not administered directly by the Romans, but by a puppet ruler Herod Antipas. We are told that Jesus comes to Capernaum and having healed a paralyzed man, he meets Matthew at the roadside.
Matthew is a tax collector in times when they were every bit as ingenious at finding sources of tax revenue as authorities are today. Tax collectors were despised by their fellow Jews, partly because of corrupt practices and partly because they were seen as collaborators with the occupying Roman imperial power.
Taxes at the time included a poll tax on every male over fourteen and every female over twelve; an early for of vehicle taxation on carts according to their wheels and axles; taxes on the use of roads; and taxes on goods being taken to market. Matthew has his toll booth at the roadside because the people who pass are those from whom he derives his revenue.
Scripture is not against taxation—Romans 13 says clearly that taxes must be paid to whom they are due—but Scripture is against corruption and racketeering, and is quite clear that the tax collectors were guilty of such practices. In Luke 3:13, in the account of John the Baptist baptizing people in the Jordan, we are told, “Even tax collectors came to be baptized.
“Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Tax collecting was a racket. People like Matthew would decide themselves how much they would charge, passing on the official amounts to the authorities and putting the balance into their own pockets. Matthew would have been a prosperous man. In order to carry out his duties hew would also have been fluent in Aramaic (the everyday language of the Jewish people) and Greek (the common language around the Mediterranean and the language in which the New Testament was written). He would also have known Hebrew from attending the synagogue and perhaps some Latin through dealing with the Romans.
To understand how much Matthew was despised we need to think in terms of how we would see someone running a protection racket today—pay them what they ask or they wreck our property. Matthew had to be paid whatever he demanded, or he could destroy someone’s livelihood.
Matthew’s conversion is one of the most dramatic in the New Testament because to leave his life of corruption and the wealth he had accumulated demanded a change of thinking far more dramatic than that asked of the fishermen, or even of Saint Paul. Matthew has an easy and a comfortable life. Money opens many doors and Matthew would have used it to make sure he had the right friends in the right places.
Did we ever think about what sort of person Matthew must have been? You could not have lived as Matthew did and have been a kind or a fair person; he was a hard hearted man, he was a hard man. He was a man used to curses and threats, and he was probably also a man who lived in fear that those threats might one day be carried out. It’s not hard to imagine the sort of company Matthew would have kept—men as hard as himself.
Matthew simply leaves all of this behind and becomes part of the inner group of Jesus’ followers. He becomes a witness to all that took place and one of the four whose writings we accept as accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus.
Matthew writes particularly for a Jewish readership, he particularly recalls the teachings of Jesus that would have addressed the thoughts and the concerns of Jewish listeners. The Sermon on the Mount, the teaching of Jesus that Matthew quotes at length, is a summary of the Law and the Prophets. To Gentile readers at a later time, there would not be a comparable concern with the Jewish law, but to Matthew’s readers, it was important to see that there was a continuity, that Jesus was the fulfilment of their ancient hopes.
Once we move beyond the pages of the New Testament, we know little about Matthew with any degree of certainty. Tradition says that Matthew preached the Gospel amongst Jewish communities for fifteen years, including writing his Gospel account in Hebrew, before he went further afield with the Good News. He is said to have travelled as far west as Macedonia and as far west as Persia. It has been a tradition of the church that he died as a Martyr, but there is disagreement amongst ancient writers on this and also on where he died.
Matthew, who was profoundly interested in the ethical and spiritual teachings of Jesus, would not have been too worried about biographical details, his concern was with the message, not with himself as the messenger.
Matthew is a challenging figure in our own times, when wealth has become the sole goal in many lives. Matthew wasn’t attracted by any material thing that Jesus might have to offer. To start with Jesus had no material wealth to offer anyone, but Matthew wasn’t interested in such things anyway, he had tried money and wealth and he had found they had left his life empty.
What Jesus offered people was not wealth or success, nor was it religion, there was plenty of that around and Matthew had rejected it; what Jesus offered was a life with meaning, a life with a purpose, a life that was going somewhere.
Matthew throws over his former life because he believes that in Jesus he has found true life. He believes that, no matter what might happen to him, there can be nothing in the world more important than following this man from Galilee.
The simplest of decisions, to realize that no matter how much he accumulates, in the end it counts for nothing, in the end his wealth and his power are worthless. The simplest of decisions and also the hardest of decisions. Wealth and success wheedle their way into our affections, they make us believe that they are the most important, that we cannot be happy without them. Matthew realized he had been deceived, money had not bought happiness or love.
We live in a society full of people like Matthew, looking for meaning and purpose, and like Matthew they too often look at the church and see not followers of Jesus, but people who more often resemble the Pharisees with rules and regulations and a suspicion of anyone who does not conform. When it comes to the crunch point in life, rules and regulations are of no more use than money and power. At the sharp moments, the painful moments, the moments when life seems utterly barren and devoid of meaning, the only one who offers anything is the man from Nazareth.
Saint Paul writes that we possess nothing, yet if we have Jesus we have everything. Matthew would have been the most hard-·hearted of men and yet he realized all that he had nothing, so he threw aside his wealth and power in order to have everything.