Saint Matthew, also known as Levi, presents Christ as the new Moses, leading His people from the darkness and slavery of sin into the light and freedom of salvation. Yet, Matthew also likely saw himself in Moses, perhaps, of the same tribe – Levi – and whose priestly lineage he likely shared, representing all those drawn out from the stagnant mud of sin. His recounting of Christ’s life follows in many ways the first five books of the Bible, the Mosaic Pentateuch.
We know little of Levi’s prior life, nor of his subsequent life as ‘Matthew’ – whose Hebraic origins mean ‘gift of the Lord’ – only that he was a tax collector, a loathed profession, a betrayer of his own people, squeezing out the hard-earned coins from his fellow Jews to enrich the already rich, such as Herod, which may sound sort of familiar and au courant.
We know not how sinful Matthew’s life was otherwise, only that as soon as he was called, he, without hesitation, arose and followed Him. The verb is the same one used for Christ’s future resurrection, but here it is a rising from spiritual death. The Venerable Bede in today’s Office of Readings teaches that Matthew was already interiorly prepared to accept the grace of conversion that Christ offered – that mystical evangelical metanoia, the ‘turning around of one’s mind and soul’; conversion to the fullness of life, the mission of Apostleship and eventually, according to our tradition, martyrdom.
‘And he rose and followed him’. There is no reason for surprise that the tax collector abandoned earthly wealth as soon as the Lord commanded him. Nor should one be amazed that neglecting his wealth, he joined a band of men whose leader had, on Matthew’s assessment, no riches at all. Our Lord summoned Matthew by speaking to him in words. By an invisible, interior impulse flooding his mind with the light of grace, he instructed him to walk in his footsteps. In this way Matthew could understand that Christ, who was summoning him away from earthly possessions, had incorruptible treasures of heaven in his gift..
The sinners and tax collectors who gathered with Matthew – now full of an exuberant joy, and why not? – for a celebratory meal with Christ were those seeking the truth, and forgiveness thereby. They were not the recalcitrant, hard-hearted wallowing in their sin, and justifying evil by the measure of their own behaviour and inclinations, as do many of our own age, who resemble more the hardened, embittered Pharisees: ‘Whatever I think is good, is good, indeed must be good’, a self-justification condemned not just by Christ, but by Pope John Paul in Veritatis Splendor, words which are worth quoting, as our Church divides over the proper interpretation of ‘mercy’:
In this context, appropriate allowance is made both for God’s mercy towards the sin of the man who experiences conversion and for the understanding of human weakness. Such understanding never means compromising and falsifying the standard of good and evil in order to adapt it to particular circumstances. It is quite human for the sinner to acknowledge his weakness and to ask mercy for his failings;
So far, so good, and those were the ones gathered in Matthew’s home, amongst whom we should count ourselves. But the Holy Father goes on to sternly warn:
what is unacceptable is the attitude of one who makes his own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good, so that he can feel self-justified, without even the need to have recourse to God and his mercy. An attitude of this sort corrupts the morality of society as a whole, since it encourages doubt about the objectivity of the moral law in general and a rejection of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions regarding specific human acts, and it ends up by confusing all judgments about values. (#104)
This week, the House of Congress in the United States will vote on a bill forcing abortion on all the states, and many of those pushing this legislation are self-proclaimed ‘Catholics’. There seems no end to our capacity to rationalize, and reduce God’s law to fit our own shriveled hearts.
The encyclical of Pope John Paul was not quoted once in Amoris Laetitia, which should give one pause. Should not the ‘Splendour of Truth’ rather be shouted from the rooftops, that we all, like Matthew, may repent, before it be too late? Whatever one’s interpretation of that problematical ‘chapter 8’, we should realize that ‘welcoming sinners’ into the Church, and to Communion, will not help them much, unless they are, with Matthew the disciple, willing to repent of their sins. Only such will we experience that peace of the Lord that ‘surpasseth understanding’, like the other tax collector, Zaccheus, and countless other souls throughout history, when salvation enters our home, hearth and heart.
We will leave you, dear reader, with the words of Saint Bede, which may warm our own hearts on this last day of summer:
To see a deeper understanding of the great celebration Matthew held at his house, we must realise that he not only gave a banquet for the Lord at his earthly residence, but far more pleasing was the banquet set in his own heart which he provided through faith and love. Our Saviour attests to this: ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me’.
Saint Matthew, ora pro nobis!