Jews usually turned away as they passed the customs place where Matthew, the tax-collector, was sitting. But look at our gospel for today:
“As Jesus passed by, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.”
To celebrate their new friendship, Matthew invited Jesus to a banquet at his house with his friends – tax collectors like himself – and Jesus came with some of his disciples. They were criticized immediately for breaking one of Capernaum’s social codes. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus’ answer was quick: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Hardly anything is known of Matthew’s part in Jesus’ later ministry, yet surely the tradition must be correct that says he recorded much of what Jesus said and did. Tax collectors were good at keeping books. Was Matthew’s task to keep memories? Did he remember some things that were especially related to his world?
The gospels say that wherever Jesus went he was welcomed by tax collectors. When he entered Jericho, Zachaeus, the chief tax collector of the city, climbed a tree to see him pass, since the crowds were so great. Did Matthew point out the man in the tree to Jesus, a tax collector like himself, who brought them all to his house, where Jesus left his blessing of salvation? And did tax collectors in other towns come to Jesus because they recognized one of their own among his companions?
Probably so. Jesus always looked kindly on outsiders like Matthew who were targets of suspicion and resentment. True, they belonged to a compromised profession tainted by greed, dishonesty and bribery. Their dealings were not always according to the fine line of right or wrong.
But they were children of God and, like lost sheep, Jesus would not let them be lost.
Pope Francis said he got his vocation to be a priest on the Feast of St. Matthew, when he went to confession and heard God’s call, a call of mercy.
The gospels themselves recall little about Matthew, an apostle of Jesus. We have his name, his occupation and a brief story of a banquet that took place with Jesus and some of his friends after his call. ( Mt 9: 9-13; Mk 2:3-12; Lk5:18-26) As it is, the gospels concentrate on the ministry and teaching of Jesus.
In the early centuries, those who knew Jesus told his story and brought his message to the world. As they died, writings about him gradually appeared, but there are only scarce references to who wrote them. St. Justin Martyr in the early 2nd century speaks of the “memoirs of the apostles”, without indicating any author by name. Later in that century, St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, writing against the Gnostics who claim a superior knowledge of Jesus Christ attributes the gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are eyewitnesses who really know Jesus firsthand; they have given us their “memoirs.”
Scholars today are less likely to credit Matthew’s Gospel to the tax-collector from Capernaum whom Jesus called. Some of his memoirs perhaps may be there– after all he came from a profession good at accounting for things. But too many indications point to other sources. Why would Matthew, if he is an eyewitness, depend on Mark’s Gospel as he does? Language, the structure of the gospel, the circumstances it addresses, point to a Jewish-Christian area beyond Palestine as its source, probably Antioch in Syria, probably written around the year 8o, after the Gospel of Mark.
Traditions says that Matthew preached in Ethiopia and Persia, but they have no historical basis.
He is remembered as a martyr who died for the faith, but again there is no historical basis.
Better to see Matthew as the gospel sees him: one of the first outsiders whom Jesus called. And he would not be the last..