Faith & Life

[Sept 21] St Matthew: from tax collector to disciple of the Lord

September 20, 2021

António dos Santos

Matthew is, without a doubt, one of the great apostles of Jesus. Touched by the Lord, Matthew detaches himself from what is worldly, and embraces the proclamation of his Master’s message, of the Good News, of the Kingdom of God. According to the Gospel ascribed to him, Matthew was a tax collector for the Roman Empire, and thus, hated by the people. Here is the account of the encounter in which the Lord calls him: “As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Matthew 9:9-11).

According to a reflection by the Capuchin Friars, which we base ourselves on for this brief introduction on St. Matthew Evangelist, the author of the Gospel of Matthew (who wrote about the year 80) copied the events from the Gospel of Mark (written some ten years earlier). And according to Mark, the tax collector was called Levi, not Matthew (Mark, 2:14). Why, then, did the Gospel of Matthew change the name of the collector, and call him Matthew?

Matthew’s name (in Greek = Matháios) sounds like the word “disciple” (in Greek = mathetés). And this was what possibly led the evangelist to elect Matthew to replace the tax collector named Levi, thus better representing the discipleship mission.

But why did the evangelist fixate on someone whose name sounded like “disciple”? There were other apostles whose names also had relevant meanings, such as Andrew “strong man,” John “God had mercy,” or Simon “he who listens to God.” Why did he choose Matthew, with its meaning of “disciple”? The reason was certainly because one of the central themes of his entire Gospel is that of discipleship. More than any other, the Gospel of Matthew highlights the importance of being disciples of Jesus and proposes us to the Christian community as examples and models.

To prove it, let us note that Matthew is the synoptic Gospel that most uses the term “disciple” (73 times). He is the only one who uses the verb “make disciples” (“disciple” comes from the Latin verb “discere,” which means “to learn.”) 

On the other hand, he is the evangelist who most underlines the teaching work of Jesus in the formation of disciples. His entire Gospel is structured around five great speeches or catechesis, delivered by Jesus, thus indicating to readers that his book is par excellence that of the disciple’s apprentice. No other work in the New Testament highlights so much teaching and preaching as this one.

In the description of the four beings of the Apocalypse – eagle, ox, lion, man – St Matthew is associated with the one with the aspect of man.

According to an ancient tradition, which is reflected in Christian writers from the 2nd to 4th centuries, Matthew stayed for a few years in Palestine, and later evangelized other countries. Historical testimonies are not accurate, and the place and circumstances of his death are unclear.

His relics are found in the crypt of the Cathedral of Salerno. There he is celebrated on the 21st of September with a solemn procession.

St. Matthew the Evangelist, pray for us!

(Image: The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Contarelli chapel altar in the church of the French congregation San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, Italy)