Editor’s note: The following homily was on September 21, 2020, the feast of St. Matthew, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.
Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Matthew, author of the First Gospel. In the New Testament, he has two names, Levi and Matthew. It was not uncommon for Jews of the first century to have two names: one, the original one, used among family and friends; the other, used especially in business affairs with Gentiles. Apart from his profession as a tax-collector, little else is known about our saint of the day, not even where he went to evangelize nor how he died – although numerous legends abound. Some sources say he went to Parthia and Persia, or Ethiopia.
Being a tax-collector (publicanus, in Latin) among the Jews put one in a class with prostitutes because the publican not only had sold out to the hated Romans by doing their dirty work but, in most instances, levied a higher tax than required, so as to skim off the top for himself. As a humorous aside, some of you may recall that we Catholic school kids called the public school kids “publicans”! At any rate, that is the historical context for understanding and appreciating the call of Matthew (immortalized in art by Caravaggio and venerated in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome).
As Matthew experiences the tender mercy of Christ, he responds with joy and enthusiasm, throwing a celebratory banquet. Bede the Venerable (the English church historian of the seventh century) explains this response in his commentary on this passage:
This conversion of one tax collector gave many men, those from his own profession and other sinners, an example of repentance and pardon. Notice also the happy and true anticipation of his future status as apostle and teacher of the nations. No sooner was he converted than Matthew drew after him a whole crowd of sinners along the same road to salvation. He took up his appointed duties while still taking his first steps in the faith, and from that hour he fulfilled his obligation and thus grew in merit. To see a deeper understanding of the great celebration Matthew held at his house, we must realise that he not only gave a banquet for the Lord at his earthly residence, but far more pleasing was the banquet set in his own heart which he provided through faith and love.
The evangelists are traditionally recognized according to their symbolic representations as the four living creatures found in Revelation 4:7; Matthew is depicted as a winged man.
For a few minutes, let’s rehearse the more salient points of the First Gospel.
While many scholars hold that Mark’s was the first Gospel written, probably about thirty-five years after the Resurrection of Jesus, a more ancient opinion—and one regaining respectability and currency—is that an Aramaic version of Matthew’s Gospel was first, having been committed to writing within a decade of the Lord’s Death and Resurrection. The Church Father Papias tells us, from his vantage-point of the first century, that “Matthew wrote down the sayings [of Jesus] in the Hebrew language.” In all likelihood, he meant “Aramaic,” rather than Hebrew (since Aramaic was the spoken tongue at that time). Intelligent conjecture suggests that the Aramaic text identified by Papias provided the base-line for the canonical Greek text we know as the First Gospel.
Matthew directed his message to Jewish converts or potential converts and so stressed the fact that conversion to Jesus does not mean entrance into a new religion but rather the only logical perfection of Judaism. The frequency of citations from the Old Testament is a constant reminder of this, as Matthew uses the Scriptures to show how Jesus is truly the long-awaited Messiah. The picture of Jesus we get from Matthew is a thoroughly Jewish one: In addition to quoting the Old Testament prophets extensively, he is familiar with Jewish customs and parallels the experience of Israel in many ways, especially as we see Jesus in the flight into Egypt and His temptations. The Jesus of Matthew is a real “son of David,” as Matthew’s genealogy is at pains to stress. Jesus promulgates His New Law, like Moses, from a mountain (5:1ff). And so, Matthew presents Jesus teaching His New Law (the Gospel) to the New Israel (the Church); in Him, the Old Law attains perfection and reaches its fulfillment.
An important theme in this Gospel is the Kingdom of Heaven. Mark and Luke refer to it as the Kingdom of God, but Matthew’s wording points to the same reality. (Matthew substitutes “Heaven” for “God” because of the Jewish tendency to avoid using the name of God.) The Kingdom is inaugurated with the preaching of Jesus, and His signs of healing give credibility to His claim that the reign of God has begun. However, this Kingdom of Heaven is not yet here in full force; it is the task of the Church to hasten its coming (Mt 16:16ff) and to pray for its arrival in power and glory (6:10). The thirteenth chapter of Matthew is devoted to a description of the characteristics of the Kingdom through the use of the famous parables of the seed, the weeds and the wheat, the mustard seed, the hidden treasure, the net. Thus, Matthew presents his audience with the twofold aspect of the mystery: Jesus has established the Kingdom of Heaven, but its full realization is contingent upon the Church’s work to “make disciples of all nations” (28:19). Matthew sets the Church’s agenda for all ages.
All of the Gospels were written as documents of faith. Each Gospel-writer wanted to put his readers into contact with Jesus, so that they might attain salvation. The Gospels inform us of the works of Christ and His preaching. His life makes demands on our lives. If we respond with faith, then the saying of the Risen Lord to Thomas was said with us in mind: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:29).
Between now and the feast of St. Luke on October 18, why not commit to read a chapter a day of St. Matthew’s Gospel? Then you can pick up with the Third Gospel. Tomorrow evening, I would like to present you with some Catholic principles of Bible reading and interpretation.
Today we thank God for the “good news” given us by St. Matthew, especially the good news that a sinner can, by God’s grace, become a saint. If Jesus can rehabilitate a tax-collector, he can do the same with you and me.
St. Matthew, pray for us, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
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