Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist
Today the Church remembers the writer of the first Gospel, Matthew, the tax collector. Mark identifies him as Levi, the son of Alphaeus. Mar 2:14. Jesus was by the sea of Galilee, teaching the crowds when He passed by a tax booth. He said to Matthew, “Follow me,” and, he rose and followed Jesus. Matthew tells us in his Gospel account that it was near Capernaum where this took place, just after Jesus had healed a paralytic after coming into town. Matthew 9:1, 9 (see also 4:13 — Jesus went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, after John was arrested). Matthew worked for Herod Antipas, but collaborated with the Romans as well, and so was not well liked by his countrymen. Matthew’s response to the call of Christ was immediate and unquestioned — he rose, left his post, and followed Jesus, his Lord and Master. Jesus then ate with Matthew at his house, along with many other tax collectors and sinners. Luke tells us that Matthew made a great feast, and there was a great crowd. The scribes and pharisees criticized Jesus for associating with tax collectors and sinners — tax collectors were in a special class all by themselves. Jesus told them that, “[t]hose who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:31-32. Mark and Luke’s Gospel agree. Matthew adds that Jesus told the pharisees to “[g]o and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice…”” quoting Hosea 6:6.
In the early days of the church, the four Evangelists were associated with the four living creatures around the throne of God noted in Ezekiel 14, and Revelation 4. Matthew is traditionally associated with the human/angelic figure; Mark the Lion; Luke the Ox/Bull; John the Eagle. This association has come down through the ages in some beautiful art in the churches and cathedrals of the world. How each apostle became associated with each creature is not clear. It seems that, for some, the connection is based on how each Gospel starts. Matthew begins: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The genealogy then runs through the course of the human patriarchs through the line of King David to Joseph, the husband of Mary. Matthew 1:1-8. Thus Matthew is associated with the humanity of Jesus. Luke’s Gospel starts with the priesthood of Zechariah the priest offering incense, the prayers of the people, in the Temple in Jerusalem. Thus, his Gospel is associated with priestly duties symbolized by the bull or ox of sacrifice. Under this theory, Mark is the Lion because his Gospel begins with John the Baptist in the desert. John of course soars above all, and his lofty themes of divine things gives him the spiritual wings of the Eagle. A brief outline of this theory can be found in Against Heresies, Book 3, Ch. 11, Irenaues of Lyons, AnteNicene Fathers, ed. Phillip Schaff. Others examined the theme of each Gospel and drew different conclusions for Mark and Matthew and switched the living creature with which they were associated.
Not much else is known about Matthew outside of his work as the author of the Gospel bearing his name. Matthew is thought to have preached the Gospel to his own people before going out into the ends of the earth. Some of the places mentioned where Matthew may have traveled spreading the Gospel are Syria, Macedonia, Persia, and to an area just south of the Caspian Sea. Even less is known about the manner of his death, whether it was as a martyr or the blessings of old age. Regardless, in Matthew, Christ gives mercy and shows how the low are lifted up by the righteousness of Christ. In turn, the Spirit is breathed upon St. Matthew, and we are given the gift of the eternal Gospel by the pen of his hand through the working of the Holy Spirit.