St. Matthew: From Publican to Apostle

St. Matthew traveled at least as far as Ethiopia to spread the Good News, wrote a Gospel, and was martyred for Jesus’ sake.

Karel van der Pluym, ‘St. Matthew and the Angel’, ca. 1655-1660
Karel van der Pluym, ‘St. Matthew and the Angel’, ca. 1655-1660 (photo: Register Files / Public Domain)

I love the stories of how Jesus called his Apostles. When I read them in Scripture or hear them in the readings at Mass, I’m drawn into the anticipation and excitement of the scenes.

It takes me back to my grade-school days, when we’d play baseball on the playground during recess. We’d stand in line, anxiously waiting as the two captains picked their teams, one by one. Everyone wanted to be the first picked, and no one wanted to be the last. We all hoped we’d be picked to be on the same team as our best friend, or at least to be on the team most likely to win. Once all the picks had been made, it was time to play ball.

Regardless of what went on in our minds while the picking was going on, once it was over, the teams gelled immediately. There was a feeling of camaraderie and a sense of common mission just because we were on the same team.

Of course, the Apostles had no idea that they’d be chosen for Jesus’ “team.” My analogy isn’t quite perfect. But, I can imagine that there was a kind of excitement and anticipation – a certain team spirit, if you will – once our Lord had gathered them all and they realized that they’d been chosen for an important mission. Even if they didn’t know exactly what the mission would be, they had to have sensed that something big was about to happen.

As I picture the scene, I wonder about St. Matthew. More precisely, I wonder about the other Apostles’ reaction to his being chosen. Matthew had been a publican, or tax collector, when Jesus called him. In our Lord’s time, tax collectors were seen as traitors because they were Jews who worked for Rome for purposes of personal gain. They collected the taxes required by Caesar, but were free to collect more if they wished and keep the extra for themselves. The Jews hated the tax collectors and wanted nothing to do with them. Now one of them had been chosen to be one of Jesus’ closest followers.

It doesn’t say in Scripture, but I can’t help but think that the others might have done some serious head-scratching over Matthew’s addition to their team. Were they suspicious of him? Perhaps they or their family members had been cheated by Matthew in the past. Were they holding a grudge against him? Were they reticent to be seen associating with him?

I don’t know what the Apostles initially thought and felt about Matthew. But, I do know, that had it been me, those kinds of thoughts likely would have crossed my mind.

Yet, look at the type of team player Matthew became once he’d been given a chance. He followed Jesus, learned from him, and loved him just like the others. True, he deserted the Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane the night he was taken prisoner by the Roman guards. But, so did the others. And, with the others (except Judas Iscariot), he witnessed Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances, was present at the Ascension, gathered in the Upper Room to await the Holy Spirit, and afterward took to the streets to preach the Good News. He traveled at least as far as Ethiopia to spread the Good News, wrote a Gospel, and was martyred for Jesus’ sake.

I’d say St. Matthew ended up being quite a valuable member of the team!

We all have Matthew’s in our lives – those of who we are critical simply because of their circumstances or background. We all have people who we’re reticent to associate with or hold grudges against because of something they’ve done in the past. We may even argue with Jesus for choosing them to be on the team.

On the surface, it may seem that we have good reason for our thinking. Still, we never know what kind of team player that person will end up being after all.