Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle — Jesus Said ‘Follow Me’

SAINTS & ART: ‘Jesus saw a man named Matthew’ and told him, ‘Follow me.’ And Matthew did.

Caravaggio, “The Inspiration of St. Matthew,” 1602
Caravaggio, “The Inspiration of St. Matthew,” 1602 (photo: Public Domain)

Just like St. Bartholomew, St. Matthew’s primary New Testament claims to fame are his call to be an Apostle and his listing among the Apostles. Apart from that, there’s not much said about him in the New Testament.

He was a publican, a tax collector in Capernaum. Jesus encounters him at his tax collecting post (Matthew 9:9-13), calls him, and Matthew follows. He has a dinner at which, along with Jesus, “many tax collectors and sinners” were present, i.e., the circles in which Matthew had moved. The Pharisees, who despised publicans (as we shall see in an upcoming Sunday Gospel), are outraged: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” To this comes Jesus’s famous reply: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.”

When we hear a particular Gospel at Mass, we are usually unaware of the context of that passage within the overall Gospel. Before the call of Matthew, Jesus does two things immediately relevant to today’s Gospel. First, he exorcises two possessed men (Matthew 8:28-34), driving the demons into a herd of swine that then kills itself. That tells us two things: that evil makes men pigs, and that the Evil One likes to kill, as Jesus elsewhere tells us (John 8:44). Second, he heals a paralyzed man by telling him, “your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:1-8). That statement infuriates the Pharisees because they observe — correctly — that only God can pardon sin. That’s Jesus’s point: He is revealing who he is and, as proof of that claim (“so that you may know the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”) he heals the man. However, that healing is not just a “proof” of his Divinity. Jesus came so that — as St. Irenaeus put it — man can be “fully alive,” healed from sin and its consequences. Jesus not only proves his divinity but discloses his mission, tells us what redemption means.

And then he focuses on Matthew.

“He saw a man named Matthew” and told him, “Follow me.” And Matthew did.

Salvation is not something generic: Jesus saves humanity. Yes, Jesus makes it objectively possible for mankind to be saved, but salvation comes to individual men and women who encounter God and follow him. The two possessed men. The paralyzed man. Matthew.

So, when Jesus tells the Pharisees, who already don’t like what they see in Jesus, that he came to “call sinners,” we have three examples in a row, culminating with Matthew and his dinner banquet, as proof.

When we discussed St. Bartholomew last month, we noted that he was sometimes also identified as Nathaniel. Something similar occurs with Matthew, who is occasionally also called “Levi.” The tradition has generally identified them. “Matthew” means “Yahweh’s gift,” i.e., God’s gift.

Apart from his vocational call and inclusion in the catalogue of Apostles, we know little else about Matthew. What we have is a Gospel attributed to Matthew’s authorship.

Matthew’s Gospel has traditionally been called the “First Gospel” because it appears first among the four in the New Testament. In recent decades, some Biblical scholars have argued that Mark’s is the first Gospel to be written. They make that claim not on the basis of sequential order but theories about the historical timeline along which the four Gospels were written. Some of those scholars also make that argument for the further purpose of advancing a particular theory about how the three Synoptic Gospel (Matthew, Mark and Luke) might be related to each other. That complex debate goes beyond our needs here.

Matthew’s Gospel contains particular characteristics that suggest the Evangelist was writing for an audience of Jewish Christians. Remember that Christianity originated in a Jewish cradle. The first Christians were Jews. Christians spread from “Jerusalem, from Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth” (see Acts 1:8). As controversies related in the Acts of the Apostles (e.g., Acts 15) indicate, it took a while before the early Church recognized that one did not have to first be a Jew before one could be a Christian though, as Pope Pius XI recognized in recognizing Christianity’s origins in Judaism, “we are all spiritual Semites.”

Among the Jewish characteristics of Matthew’s Gospel are his tendency to cite the Old Testament (“as was said through X the prophet”); to record original Aramaic or Hebrew words (e.g., “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani”) and to constantly allude to Jewish practices. These features are either minimal or absent in the other Gospels, making the case that Matthew was writing for Christians who were Jews to make it clear to them that they were not “converting” or “changing” their faith as much as bringing it to the fulfillment God intended.

Of Matthew’s subsequent life, we know little. Tradition holds that he preached in what today is the area of Iran around the Caspian Sea, where he opposed local superstition. That region was called “Ethiopia” (to be distinguished from the eponymous place in Africa). The tradition has it that he was murdered during celebration of the Eucharist, though The Catholic Encyclopedia observes only that “there is a disagreement as to the place of Matthew’s martyrdom and the kind of torture inflicted on him, therefore it is not known whether he was burned, stoned, or beheaded.”

Today’s saint is illustrated by Caravaggio’s 1602 oil painting, “The Inspiration of St. Matthew.” It’s one of three Caravaggio masterpieces connected with Matthew, the other two being “The Calling of Saint Matthew” and “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.” I chose this painting, even though many art historians would focus on “The Calling of St. Matthew” instead because, beginning in Advent on Nov. 27, the Church will take most of its Sunday Gospels from Matthew.

The painting depicts two figures: Matthew and an angel. Indeed, the attribute of St. Matthew is an angel: that is usually the symbol we will see for Matthew and his Gospel (alongside Mark’s lion, Luke’s bull, and John’s eagle). Caravaggio’s characteristic use of shadow and light is on display in this painting, as is his Baroque features, e.g., the large, muscular figure of Matthew, the dynamic, large and colorful angel who is God’s messenger.

Unlike other paintings of Matthew writing his Gospel (and, apparently, a non-extant earlier version of Caravaggio’s painting) there is respectful space between the angel and the Evangelist. The angel is not “whispering in Matthew’s ear.” Caravaggio captures an important truth about Biblical inspiration.

The Bible is revelation: God disclosing who he is and what his plans are for us. God must reveal himself, because we cannot reach God. God must descend. This therefore involves inspiration, i.e., the collaboration of Divine and human authors in any written product. And the Church must decide which books are inspired and which are not — the question of canonicity. God may have given us the Bible, but he didn’t include a table of contents. Seriously, the question of canonicity has important implications for Protestant biblical literalism, which pretends the “Bible” can one-sidedly critique the Church. It can’t, because without the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, there wouldn’t have the Bible because we wouldn’t have known what belonged in it, and what didn’t.

Inspiration, like any act of grace, involves a complex divine-human dynamic. God may inspire the contents, particular ideas or even words, but the human author also puts his stamp on the work. It’s not a question of God just “whispering words” to the biblical writer that the human author takes down like divine dictation. It’s not supernatural stenography. Rather, as the Jerome Biblical Commentary once put it: imagine acid pouring on a metal. The acid makes its mark, but it makes its mark differently on lead, copper, iron and gold. Apply that image to the very human writers who lent their humanity to God in the process of the inspiration of the biblical books.

If God made all that effort, out of respect for human liberty and the humanity of his human writer, then perhaps you might resolve to get to know those works better. There are various strategies on the market to help you get to know the Bible better, e.g., “the Bible in a Year” (though I personally have doubts about cramming as deep, rich, and complex a book as the Bible in a year). You might want to check out what works for you. Take a look here and here.