|Rev. Fr. Augustine Vallooran V.C.|
St. Matthew is mentioned in the gospels as one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus. The twelve Apostles were chosen by Jesus by name to be with Him and to be sent out to preach the gospel. St. Matthew therefore belongs to the band of the closest associates of Jesus and became the primary teachers of the gospel message.
The biographical details that we know of St. Matthew are minimal and fragmentary. He was born in Galilee as the son of Alphaeus. During the Roman occupation of Palestine, Matthew was a government official with the charge of collecting taxes from the Jews for Herod Antipas - the tetrarch of Galilee. His tax office was located in Capernaum. As a tax collector, he was despised by his own Jewish community and was considered an outcast.
The Gospels tell us that after his call, Matthew invited Jesus home for a feast. His apostolic activity was first restricted to the Christian communities of Palestine. His gospel is designed to convince the Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah - in whom all the promises of the messianic kingdom are fulfilled. It is believed that after his apostolate in Palestine, he went over to Ethiopia and even perhaps to Parthia and Persia during the time of the persecution by Herod Agrippa in 42 AD.
“It Depends Not On Human Will Or Exertion, But On God Who Shows Mercy” (Romans 9:16)
St. Matthew, in his life and message, proclaims that salvation of man is because of the Mercy of God. He should have been surprised that Jesus invited him, who was regarded by his own tribe as a public sinner, into the group of the chosen Apostles. He was a tax collector and as was usual of that profession, he was dishonest and driven by greed until he was chosen as a disciple of Jesus. The gospel tells us that Jesus met him in Capernaum in his tax booth on the main highway. He must have been collecting customs duty on the imported goods brought by farmers, merchants and caravans. According to the Roman Empire's system of tax collection, a tax collector paid a huge amount as tax revenue to the government and then would go about extorting unreasonably high taxes from the citizens and travellers to ensure for himself a good commission. They were protected by the Roman soldiers in their business. Precisely because of this system, the tax collectors were notoriously corrupt and because their decisions were enforced by Roman soldiers, no one could fight them. Matthew was well aware that he did not deserve to be close to a godly person like Jesus. However as soon as he was called by Jesus to follow Him, he responded immediately. We learn three lessons about following Jesus.
The Good News of the Gospel is that it offers God's Grace not depending on human merit. God does not exclude anyone from His friendship. In fact, the Pharisees and the scribes were shocked that Matthew was included by Jesus. In response to this Jesus said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous but sinners."(Matthew 2:17) Matthew himself was deeply aware of his unworthiness to be a disciple of Jesus. However, he was more impressed by the fact of his special call to be in such a close association with Jesus. Hence he was not ashamed of his sinful past - rather his past made him grateful for what the Master had done for him. It is noteworthy that while Matthew avows that he was a publican, the other evangelists do not mention this derogatory word about him. This could have been because of the reverence and the honour they felt to their brother evangelist. In fact, the word publican was so derogatory that it is always used in the gospels in reference to the despised sinner. In the gospels, several times the two words come together "publicans and sinners" (Matthew 9:10, Luke 15:1) as well as "publicans and prostitutes" (Matthew 21:31).
However St. Matthew does not shy away to use this term about himself because of the decision he had made to quit his past life and follow Jesus. He responds instantly to the Call of Jesus. The gospels tell us, "He rose and followed Him" (Matthew 9:9, Mark 2:14, Luke 5:28). It was an instant readiness to respond to the Call of Jesus - leaving his tax accounts incomplete without the fear of his masters. This ready obedience to the Call of Jesus meant abandoning everything especially what guaranteed him a source of sure income. He did not weigh the consequences of his obedience or calculate the possibilities of a certain future. Moreover his response was a celebration for him because we are told that he made a great feast in honour of Jesus in his house. It was during this feast that, when the Pharisees and the scribes murmured about Jesus associating himself with publicans and sinners, Jesus proclaimed the mystery of God's heart, "I desire mercy not sacrifice." (Matthew 9:13)
The call and response of St. Matthew reveals the central focus of our salvation. Our life in God depends on God's Mercy and not on our merit. When God chooses us and we respond generously to His Call, even our painful and sinful past experiences will bathe in the Glory of the Mercy of the Lord. We will then look back into the past not with shame and regret but with an ineffable joy for having been forgiven by the Compassion of the Lord.
“Not By Works But By His Call” (Romans 9:12)
St. John Chrysostom commenting on the Call of the Apostles explains to us that though these Apostles have a glorious name and rule in the salvation history, their past was sinful or socially insignificant. While St. Matthew was a tax collector and there was nothing more despicable than that; Peter, Andrew, James and John were called when they were fishing which was considered a socially low profession in those days. However the glory of their ministry comes from their call and their willingness to respond wholeheartedly.
I know a businessman who is very committed to the Lord. He is known for the charismatic gifts that the Holy Spirit has bestowed on him. People approach him in the moments of their distress to be comforted and to be guided. He has a way of telling them openly of his own past that was anything but inspiring. He had an unholy affair and his prayer life was to the minimum. His friends had led him to drinking and gambling habits. He was not honest in his business either. That was when he met with a heavy loss in his business. In desperation he came for the retreat as he did not know where else to go. Even his wife and son had deserted him. His spiritual crisis led him to the retreat centre. He was deeply moved by the experience of the Mercy of God. He came to a painful realization that he had taken God for granted. His routine religious observances were out of a custom rather than acts of faith. He realized how far he was from God. It also occurred to him that his failure in business was a blessing which brought him to the Lord. In that failure he felt the call of God to turn to Him and to make Him the priority of his life. His return to the Lord was complete and wholehearted! He spent a few months in the retreat centre and with the help of the Fathers, he got his family back. He spent his time in prayer and got a call from God to the ministry of counselling. He got attached to the retreat centre and began his service of counselling for the retreatants. Something striking about him was that he would tell his own conversion story openly without any shame. When I spoke to him about this, his comment was that all that he was, was God's work in him. He was an example of what God could achieve with a human life. He would not take credit for his ministry. He is grateful to God for all that He does in and through him.
“To Be Moulded As He Pleases” (Sirach 33:13)
Here indeed we touch the inner core of Christian life and ministry. When we want to be what we want to be, we make a mess of our life. When we surrender our life in the Hands of God, God is able to mould us according to His Will. That is when God is able to achieve through our lives what He wants of us. It is only then that we become relevant to and accept our role in the Divine history of Salvation.
Once Matthew offered himself in the Hands of Jesus, there was no turning back and he made sure that he did not want to go back to his old ways by the grand celebration of his conversion in the banquet he held in his place. It was the bidding of a farewell to his old friends and a declaration of his new life. It was at this feast that he learnt the lesson of God's Mercy. From then on his concern was to make Jesus known. As a tax collector, he would have been fluent in Aramaic - the language of the people, and in Greek - the language of the market place. He wrote his gospel for the sake of his own people by demonstrating to them that Jesus was the Messiah awaited by the Jewish nation. His gospel was the answer to the question posed by the disciples of St John the Baptist, "Are you He who is to come or shall we look for another?" (Matthew 11:3) Of the four evangelists it was Matthew who proclaimed to the Jews that in Jesus, their hope of salvation was realized! Even today, it is the Gospel of Matthew that reveals to us that our aspirations for a meaningful life are fulfiled in Jesus Christ.
“Those Whom He Called He Justified And He Also Glorified” (Romans 8:30)
St. Matthew teaches us two lessons. Our present life is not to be determined by our past. Whatever might have gone wrong in our past, we shall not languish in guilt and shame. What is needed is to wait to hear the invitation of the Lord, "Come and follow me". Our God is not a god of the past but the Lord of the future. Every saint has a past and every sinner a future. The more we delay to answer the Call of Jesus, the more wasted our lives will become. Following Jesus will bring in glory to our life. We shall always be ready to rise up and never be satisfied with the status quo. Great will be our future when we are ready to follow Him.
Once Matthew followed Jesus, he was listening to the words of the Lord. That is what is meant in being a disciple. Jesus said as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock." (Matthew 7:24) Matthew not only listened but wanted the whole world to hear the words of the Master and follow the way of The Lord that leads to life. It was for this purpose that he wrote the gospel. The concern of Matthew was that no distraction of the world should deter a disciple of Jesus from following the Way of the Lord. "The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock." (Matthew 7:25) What Matthew has achieved with his discipleship was to make sure that those who followed Jesus will build their lives solidly on the Word of God. A man who would have wasted his life by collecting customs has made his life meaningful in the kingdom of God by gathering souls for God!
Let Us Pray
Help me, Lord to wait on You, inviting the Holy Spirit – that God’s Own Power will enlighten and come into my heart:
-That I may be able to understand God’s Will.
-That I may be able to accept God’s mission for my life.
-That I may be able to hear God’s Call in my heart and in my life.
Open my heart, O God, for Your Own Spirit to come upon me.