Saturday, September 21, 2002

Matthew Levi and his coming out party!

Today is the feast of St. Matthew, apostle and evangelist, one of Jesus' more unique characters.

For, you see, Matthew had really sunk low in the world. He calls himself Matthew, but the other gospel writers call him Levi. This meant he had a hereditary job, serving the Lord in the holy temple; or at least that was what he was supposed to be doing. What he actually was doing was collecting taxes.

Back then, tax collecting wasn't an upright or honorable profession, this was long, long before the IRS. Tax collecting was one of the least honorable trades to be had, socially on a par with prostitution as a way of life. The occupiers didn't collect their own taxes; they hired out that job to independent contractors, who were paid a percentage of the take. So the less honest and more vicious one was, the richer one got. Not only was the tax collector collaborating with those rotten Roman occupation forces, he was (almost universally) fleecing his own people besides! And this life of well-to-do outcast collaborator, public sinner, was Matthew Levi's.

Jesus came to get him at the tax collector's office. Jesus called to Matthew, and Matthew wasted no time leaving the office not only for the day but for keeps. [When tough times came later, the fisher folk occasionally went back to fishing for their support, which could be done honorably and without sinning; but Matthew never went back to the office, the temptation levels were just too high.]

But, before he left town and went out on the road with Jesus, he had Jesus over to his house and threw a rip-roaring good party with Jesus the guest of honor and the rest of the guest list being Matthew's friends, the only sort of friends a tax collector could have: other tax collectors, Roman collaborators of other occupations, and other public sinners. Not a respectable upstanding citizen in the lot of them. Yet, these were Matthew's friends. Matthew had been found by Jesus and was getting out; he wasn't going to go before all his friends got to meet Jesus also.

Here's how St. Bede preached about this party, in the passage in today's Office of Readings: This conversion of one tax collector gave many men, those from his own profession and other sinners, an example of repentance and pardon. Notice also the happy and true anticipation of his future status as apostle and teacher of the nations. No sooner was he converted than Matthew drew after him a whole crowd of sinners along the same road to salvation. He took up his appointed duties while still taking his first steps in the faith, and from that hour he fulfilled his obligations and thus grew in merit. ...

Matthew, apostle and evangelist, faithful friend, pray for us.

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