St. Matthew

 

Perhaps with Mary Magdalene St. Matthew should be everyone’s favorite saint from among those friends who knew Jesus personally.

She was a great sinner, and he a tax collector.  Yet, despite their pasts they are mighty in the pantheon of the saints.  Both teach, to anyone who will pay attention anyway– which is the subject for today, that no one is beyond redemption, beyond hope.

Now tax collectors are never liked.  Unlike a birthday or Christmas card, no one hopes to see an envelope from the Department of Revenue or the IRS in his mailbox, with the lone exception being the refund check.

But in Jesus’ day publicans truly were despised in a manner not likely  the case today.  Just as now there were many types of taxes or fees in Palestine.  There was a Ground tax or a tithe of production; there was a head tax on each person; there was an income tax of 1%.  But these were statutory taxes and thus not susceptible to lining ones pockets.

Other taxes provided that “ability” to the collectors, the publicans, because of their varying amounts.   There was a varying percentage tax on imported and exported goods; there were tolls to use certain roads and certain bridges or to enter certain marketplaces.  There was a tax on pack animals such as oxen, but also on wheels and axles, and a tax on buying or selling anything.  And  then there were certain products which were government monopolies, such as in Egypt with papyrus and beer.  Not surprisingly then, rich folks and businesses often paid bribes to keep their fees and taxes down.

Because of the nature of their work, and their extortion, and their working for the conquering Romans, publicans were grouped with murderers and robbers and not allowed to be witnesses in any legal case, and also were disallowed at synagogue.  They actually were grouped with unclean animals and thus to be shunned, according to the Book of Leviticus.

While despised, their compensation was quite good.  Many publicans became very wealthy.  So, it was a cushy job that Matthew gave up to follow Jesus.  Yet, that is what he did.  Jesus passed by and said “follow me” and St. Matthew retired from his day job.  According to St. Luke’s account, Matthew even went home and threw a feast for Jesus!

Unquestionably Matthew would have heard about Jesus from others.  But when he looked at him something “clicked”, and that was that and he was done with his old life.  The other Apostles also up and left their old careers. Perhaps Matthew and the others saw something in Jesus’ face?  Our Epistle talks about “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” being in the face of Jesus.

In the decades after Jesus’ death St. Matthew tried to convince the Jews that they had been wrong and had killed their messiah.  Indeed, this is the tenor of his whole Gospel which is replete with OT references.  Later he went to the area around the Caspian Sea to preach the Gospel where he ultimately was martyred.  His major shrine is in Salerno on the northern coast of the Adriatic Sea in  Italy.

St. Matthew lost what financial planners call “a great income stream”, a comfortable job, and financial security.  But he gained honor and destiny.  He probably found a peace and a joy that he never had experienced collecting taxes or through all his wealth.  While a natural patron saint for tax collectors and other civil servants, St. Matthew also is one for bankers and accountants.  But given our society’s all consuming focus on wealth, security, and comfort he really is a patron saint for our secular age.

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