The Liturgical Home: The Feast of St. Matthew

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On September 21st, Christians worldwide will celebrate the Feast of St. Matthew, a day dedicated to honoring the remarkable life and enduring legacy of one of the beloved apostles. Known both as Matthew and Levi in the Bible, this apostle underwent a profound transformation through his encounter with Jesus, going from a despised tax collector to a cherished disciple and a prominent figure in the early church. As we delve into the story of St. Matthew’s life, we uncover not only the profound meaning behind his transformation but also his enduring legacy.

Matthew or Levi?

In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we are presented with the compelling story of Matthew’s divine calling. As you read these accounts, you might notice that Matthew is referred to as both Matthew and Levi, son of Alphaeus. While you might wonder why we referred to him by both, some scholars suggest that the tax collector simply had two names, one for each language in the region. “Matthew” might have been his Greek name, while “Levi” was his Hebrew name. This practice of having both a Hebrew and a Greek or Roman name was not uncommon in Jewish society during that era, as exemplified by Saul, also known as Paul. It doesn’t necessarily signify a name change but the existence of two names in two different languages.

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Other scholars believe that the two names indicate a name change. The Bible offers many instances of name changes following significant religious experiences. It is plausible that Matthew adopted or was bestowed the name “Matthew” after his calling by Jesus, as it translates to “gift of Yahweh” in Hebrew, symbolizing his new identity and calling as a disciple of Jesus. Whichever theory is correct, the early Christian community called him Matthew until his death.

The Call of St. Matthew

Tax Collection in Roman Judea

To fully appreciate the call of St. Matthew, his background is a remarkable part of his story. Before embracing the path of discipleship, he served as a tax collector under Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee. Tax collectors, also known as “publicans,” were held in low regard within Jewish society during Jesus’ time. They were often seen as collaborators with the Roman oppressors who occupied the land of Judea. The tax collection system, fraught with potential abuse, allowed collectors to gather more than the prescribed amount, pocketing the surplus for themselves. This encouraged extortion and corruption, leading to the accumulation of wealth through dishonest means.

As devout Jews, association with Gentiles, like the Romans, rendered individuals ritually unclean, and tax collectors’ constant interaction with Roman officials further tainted their reputation. Consequently, their income was considered impure, rendering it unfit for religious dues or temple offerings. These factors combined to socially ostracize tax collectors, categorizing them among the “sinners” in many New Testament passages, reflecting their low moral and social standing.

The  Scandalous Call of Jesus

Understanding this context makes the call of St. Matthew remarkable. When Jesus encounters St. Matthew sitting at the customs house collecting taxes, he issues a simple yet profound call: “Follow me.” Matthew immediately arose, leaving everything behind to follow Jesus. Jesus dined at Matthew’s house with more tax collectors and sinners that night. This incident drew the ire of the religious leaders, prompting Jesus to declare that He came not for the righteous but for sinners, emphasizing the importance of mercy over sacrifice (Matthew 9:12-13).

Jesus’ choice to openly associate and dine with tax collectors and sinners, including Matthew, stirred controversy among religious leaders of His time. However, this association embodied Jesus’ mission to seek and save the lost, demonstrating God’s boundless love and grace, even for society’s most sinful and marginalized.

The Ministry of St. Matthew

Following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Matthew remained in Jerusalem with his fellow disciples, receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit. As an apostle of the Lord, he dedicated his life to spreading the Gospel and leading the early church. Matthew’s profound teachings and insights into the life of Jesus culminated in the writing of the Gospel According to Matthew, the first gospel account in the New Testament. Matthew designed his Gospel to establish Jesus as the Messiah, particularly for his Jewish readers.

Beyond his written legacy, Matthew’s apostolic journey is steeped in rich history and tradition. Early Church fathers like Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria suggest that Matthew initially preached the Gospel in Judea before embarking on missions to other lands, with Ethiopia often cited as one of his destinations.

One notable tradition associated with Matthew involves his encounter with King Hirtacus in Ethiopia. Matthew’s steadfast devotion to his faith led him to confront the king for lusting after Ephigenia, a nun consecrated to God. Matthew’s rebuke, delivered at a Mass, ultimately led to his martyrdom, solidifying his commitment to his faith.

Like the other Gospel writers (called the Evangelists), artists often depict St. Matthew as one of the four living creatures of Revelation 4:7. St. Matthew appears as a winged man.

Ways to Celebrate the Feast of St. Matthew

  • Read the story of the call of Matthew in Matthew 9:9-13 or Mark 2:13-17.
  • Eat grapes or drink wine or grape juice. In Logrono, Spain, the celebration of St. Matthew’s Day coincides with the grape harvest, so the week-long Las Fiestas de San Mateo features grape-themed festivities.

As a nod to St. Matthew’s role as a tax collector:

  • Play Monopoly: Enjoy some family fun with a game of Monopoly.
  • Have a Pay Day: Treat your family to a Pay Day candy bar or a bag of chocolate coins.
  • Pancake Stacks: Make stacks of little pancakes that resemble coins. Recipe following.

Coin Pancakes for St. Matthew’s Day

Coin pancakes for the Feast of St. Matthew
Coin pancakes.
  • 1 egg
  • 3 Tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup buttermilk

Melt the butter. When cool, blend in the egg. In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Add the egg, butter, and buttermilk to the dry ingredients. Whisk until smooth. Heat a griddle to medium-low heat. Melt 1 tsp of butter in the griddle. Pour out batter, making small circles. Flip when golden brown. Drizzle with honey or syrup. Makes 2-3 servings.


Image: The Calling of the Apostle Matthew by A.N. Mironov (2010). Creative Commons, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Published on

September 19, 2023

Author

Ashley Tumlin Wallace

Ashley Tumlin Wallace, the author of the Liturgical Home series of books and articles at Anglican Compass, is a homeschooling mom of four and the wife of an Anglican priest. She and her family live in the panhandle of Florida.

View more from Ashley Tumlin Wallace

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