Today we commemorate the Holy Apostle Matthew. Of the Twelve Apostles, Matthew’s story prior to him following Christ is certainly the most colourful.
Saint Matthew was a tax-collector for the Roman authorities in Israel, and therefore viewed as a wicked collaborator by most Jews of the time. Tax collection was typically allocated by a “tax-farming” approach; a tax farming jurisdiction would attract many bids from potential collectors, guaranteeing a certain revenue to the State, and the winning bidder could keep any revenue over and above the guaranteed remittance to the Treasury. The concept of transparent tax rates and policies was not well developed, and tax collectors would often intimidate vast sums of money out of businesses and households in their jurisdictions with teams of thugs on an arbitrary basis. Viewed not only as collaborators but as standover merchants, Jewish law at the time forbade Jews to socially associate with tax collectors, and some accounts record that to even mention the occupation was forbidden. That Christ would calmly approach such a pariah and command him to, “Come, follow me!” astounded the Jewish authorities, but as Matthew himself wrote in Aramaic later, Christ has “come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mt. 9: 13). If Christ could reshape the life of such a fallen scoundrel as Matthew to such good purpose, this gives all of us cause for great hope.
“Matthew was originally called Levi. He was the son of Alphaeus and was by profession a publican, or tax-collector, at Capernaum. On one occasion Jesus, coming up from the side of the lake, passed the custom-house where Matthew was seated and said to him, “Follow me.” Matthew arose and followed Christ, becoming his disciple (Matthew 9:9). He changed his name to reflect his new calling. “Matthew” means “Gift of the Lord.”
The same day on which Jesus called him he made a “great feast” (Luke 5:29), a farewell feast, to which he invited Jesus and his disciples and probably also many of his old associates. The last notice of him in the New Testament is in Acts1:13.
After the resurrection of our Lord, Matthew went and preached amongst the Jews. His Gospel was probably first written in Aramaic and later translated into Greek. Eventually Matthew went to Ethiopia to spread the gospel. There he was martyred by Fulvian, the ruler of the region, by being set on fire. After Matthew willingly gave up his soul to the Lord, his body was put in a coffin and cast into the sea. It washed up at the site of the church he had built. Fulvian, Matthew’s persecutor, immediately repented of his deed, renounced his position of worldly power, and was made a presbyter by the Bishop Platon (or Plato). Once Platon died, the apostle appeared to the priest (who had taken the name Matthew as well) and told him to assume the bishop’s throne.”