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St Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist
(entered heaven in the first century)
Someone once told me that the phrase “do not fear” appears 365 times in the Bible – one time for each day of the year. I never counted them myself, but it rings true. God wants our love, because he loves us. That’s why he created us. And if he is asking you to do something, to give up something, to follow him in a special way, his invitation is the fruit of his love; it’s because he knows that whatever it is he is asking you will be better for you, since it will draw you and others closer to him. So you need not be afraid. Today’s saint wasn’t afraid, even though he had plenty of reasons to be so.
Matthew became one of the twelve pillars of the Church and one of the four men entrusted with writing the most important story ever written by human hands (the Gospels), but he started out as a despised public sinner. He was a tax collector by trade. Tax collectors were pawns of the Romans. When the Roman Empire subjugated a new territory, it would enlist native citizens to pay the occupying governor a set amount in taxes. As a motivation to insure payment, the Roman officials would turn a blind eye to those tax collectors who gathered more than was actually required, pocketing the excess. Consequently, these men were considered traitors, collaborators with the occupying forces. Many Jews would forbid their children from marrying into families that had a tax collector in them. Often they were banned from community worship and ostracized from normal civil affairs. They were considered enemies.
But Christ sees Matthew there in his office, looks him in the eye, and says, “Come, follow me.” And Matthew gets up, leaves behind his career and wealth, and joins the little band of Apostles. (Just imagine the reaction of the other disciples as a tax collector entered their ranks.) Jesus is practicing what he preaches (and what St Matthew recorded in his Gospel, and probably treasured deep in his heart): “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?” (Matthew 5:44-47)
It’s another example of Christ’s love, reaching out and redeeming souls who seek meaning and happiness, souls that others overlook. Do you remember Caravaggio’s painting of the scene where Jesus calls St Matthew? It’s a remarkable work, but the detail which most impresses me is Christ’s hand. He has extended his harm and is pointing at Matthew from across the room. But he’s not pointing in just any fashion. The hand is a perfect imitation of God’s hand in Michelangelo’s famous fresco of the Creation of Adam. I don’t think it’s a coincidence; it’s a deep spiritual insight. When God calls us, when he invites us to follow him, or to follow him more closely, it’s like he’s creating us anew; he’s giving us a chance to experience a new, higher, deeper, more fulfilling life. So don’t be afraid; go for it.
Your devoted uncle, Eddy