Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings, Introduced French Cuisine to America.
No one likes taxes. But anti-tax animosity was especially intense in ancient Israel during the first century of the Christian era. In the Gospels, tax collectors (also known as publicans) are frequently mentioned in the same breath as harlots and sinners.
If tax collectors had a lousy reputation 2000 years ago, they deserved it. Under the Romans, the governor of each province was responsible for collecting the tax on land. Other taxes—on individuals, on personal property, on imports and exports—were subcontracted to private individuals who paid the Romans a fee in advance for the right to collect whatever Rome had levied on the conquered nations of its empire. These freelance tax collectors profited from this transaction by overcharging or extorting as much as they could get out of the taxpayers. The Romans didn’t care, as long as they got the full balance of what was due. The Jews, on the other hand, cared quite a lot. In their eyes, Jewish tax collectors were shameless crooks who committed the twofold crime of collaborating with heathens and preying upon their own people. Little wonder that the Jews of Christ’s day regarded tax collectors with loathing.
Today, Sept. 21, we celebrate the feast of St. Matthew, also called Levi in the Gospels of St. Mark and St. Luke. He was a tax collector at Capernaum, a Roman garrison town. He was sitting at his table in the customs house, shaking down his neighbors, when Jesus Christ walked by. Our Lord had just healed a paralyzed man; now he was about to reconcile a sinner. “Follow me,” Christ said. To the surprise of the Roman guards, the clerks and the taxpayers, Matthew got up, left the money where it lay on the table, turned his back on a life of government-sanctioned thievery, and joined the handful of men we know as the Twelve Apostles.
St. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Matthew celebrated his conversion by throwing an elaborate feast for Christ, the apostles, and a host of other guests. When the Pharisees complained that Jesus had no business dining with a notorious tax collector, Christ answered, “I came not to call the just, but sinners.”
This is the only scene in the New Testament in which Matthew takes the spotlight.
From a very early date Christians attributed one of the Gospels to St. Matthew. Although it comes first in the New Testament, St. Mark’s is probably the oldest Gospel, which almost certainly served as a source for Matthew. Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience; in his Gospel, he quotes frequently from the Hebrew Scriptures to emphasize that Christ is the fulfillment of the prophecies. We owe to Matthew stories that do not occur in the other Gospels: St. Joseph’s plan to put away the Blessed Virgin Mary, the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem, King Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, the suicide of Judas, and the guards at Christ’s tomb. He also gave us a major portion of the Sermon on the Mount, the parable of the sower, and the metaphor of the sheep and the goats at the Last Judgment.
There is no reliable record of what Matthew did after the first Pentecost when the apostles scattered to preach the Gospel. He may have gone to Ethiopia, or to the region near the Caspian Sea—those two destinations appear most often in the old sources. There is even a dubious claim that St. Matthew went to Ireland. The truth is St. Matthew’s later life is a mystery. Tradition says that he died a martyr, cut down with a sword as he said Mass. But we aren’t even sure about that.