Apostle came from vilest of sinners

Matthew was a shakedown artist before meeting Jesus.

The Matthew who would eventually write the first Gospel in the New Testament, who would be proclaimed a saint, whose name means “gift of Yaweh” or “gift of God” in Hebrew, that Matthew was a tax collector, who tacked on extra fees for personal profit, a common practice of the time.

“In biblical times the tax collector was considered by the Jews to be a traitor and very probably a thief,” says the website allaboutjesuschrist.org. “Why? Because the land of Israel was occupied by Rome and the taxes collected went to Rome. … These tax collectors overcharged (Luke 3:13) and brought false charges of smuggling in the hopes of extorting hush money.”

“The government bid out their business, and the tax collectors collected their part, as well as the government’s. So, yes, you could call him a shakedown artist,” says the Rev. John “Bud” Traylor, a former president of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, a former interim president of Louisiana College in Pineville and a longtime pastor at First Baptist Church of Monroe. He now serves as interim pastor at Faith Baptist Church in Baker.

“As a tax collector, Matthew was relegated with the vilest of sinners,” Traylor continues. “When Jesus called him, it registered an important event ­— important about who Jesus calls to his kingdom.”

Matthew acknowledged his past in his own writings, referring to himself as “Matthew,” instead of “Levi,” as he’s called in the Gospels of Luke and Mark.

“With this, the early Christians saw his humility,” says the Rev. Matthew McCaughey, parochial vicar at St. Thomas More Catholic Church. “The early Christians saw this as being respectful and not arrogant. His name was Matthew when he was the tax collector, and he’s saying, ‘This was me, but look at the power that the Lord has had in my life.’ ”

Not much is known about Matthew’s family lineage. He’s called Levi, son of Alpheus in Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:17, but neither verse elaborates.

So, Matthew’s history starts with his tax collecting. Jesus immediately changed Matthew’s future.

Matthew writes about his conversion in Matthew 9:9: “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”

“The dramatic directness of Christ’s invitation and the ready response of the addresses should easily capture the imagination,” states Crisis Magazine at crisimagazine.com. “Perhaps his curiosity had been previously piqued by this itinerant rabbi’s preaching or maybe this was his first introduction to Christ.”

Matthew’s call came later in Jesus’ ministry.

“Matthew was called later, because he needed time for the miracles to come into his heart,” McCaughy says. “The Lord knew he needed this time.”

Matthew’s first act was to arrange a feast for Christ. This passage, found in Matthew 9:10-13, also is where Jesus explains who he has come to earth to redeem: “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means. I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’ ”

“Matthew also was a witness to the Resurrection and Ascension,” Traylor says. “He wrote his Gospel for a Jewish audience.”

Church tradition takes up Matthew’s story at this point, placing him in Persia and Ethiopia 15 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The location of Matthew’s death is not known. Tradition says he was martyred by sword in Parthia, which makes up northeastern Iran today.

The Catholic Enyclopedia at newadvent.org says: “There is a disagreement as to the place of St. Matthew’s martyrdom and the kind of torture inflicted on him, therefore it is not known whether he was burned, stoned or beheaded.”

Matthew was proclaimed a saint before the Catholic church put the canonization process in place. His feast day is celebrated on Sept. 21, and he is known as the patron saint of accountants, bankers and bookkeepers.

“I was named for Matthew; he is my patron saint,” McCaughy says. “When I took my faith more seriously and let the Lord work in my life, Matthew’s story appealed to me in a way it hadn’t before.”

“I was training to be an engineer, and finances were always on my mind, because we had to do things economically,” McCaughy says.

He discovered that Matthew’s interest in numbers and finances continued even after he became an apostle.

“His ear is tuned in when there’s talk of finances,” McCaughy says. “He writes of treasure of a different kind in heaven, the coin in the fish’s mouth and the parable of talents in his Gospel.”

In Matthew 25:14-30, Christ delivers the parable of a master who distributes talents or money to three slaves. One slave receives five talents, another two and the third is given one. The first two slaves put their talents to work and double their lot. The last buries his in a hole and gains nothing. It is a lesson of faithful and unfaithful service.

From shakedown artist to faithful servant, one other thing is known about Matthew: His was a story of redemption.