This piece on St. Matthew first appeared in the Autumn 2020 Scripture issue of Evangelization & Culture, the quarterly journal of the Word on Fire Institute. Learn more and become a member today to read more pieces like this.

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. (Matt. 9:9)

Perhaps the best-known artistic depiction of this event is Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew, kept today at the Church of St. Louis of the French in Rome. In this canvas, four men sit with Matthew—also called Levi—at a table counting money. Jesus and St. Peter stand in the doorway with their fingers extended toward the tax collector: he is being chosen. God is offering grace to the sinner. 

In Caravaggio’s masterpiece, St. Matthew points at himself without taking his eyes off the one who summons him. His body language, frozen in time, brings forth a simple but weighty question: “Me?” In the real event portrayed by this painting, the tax collector would then stand up from his chair, leave the money, abandon his career, and follow Jesus. From there, Levi, collector of taxes, would become Matthew, collector of souls.

Like many of Jesus’ most intimate friends, St. Matthew is something of a mystery. Very little is known about him today, making a biographical portrait impossible. Nonetheless, we can sketch out a profile of the man portrayed in Caravaggio’s painting and in the New Testament. “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter,” wrote Oscar Wilde. Insofar as this is true, we might also carefully extract something about Matthew from the Gospel attributed to him as early as AD 130 by Bishop Papias of Hierapolis in Frisia. Thus, I’d like to profile this saint and evangelist for our consideration, and from this humble profile draw out a consideration or two for our own lives.

When we read about the calling of St. Matthew, it is difficult for us to grasp how extraordinary an event this was within the cultural milieu in which it happened. Choosing Matthew as his disciple, Jesus thereby welcomed into his group of close friends a man who was publicly despised as a sinner.

Matthew was a tax collector, a publican, responsible for collecting public revenue for the Roman authorities. Jewish publicans like Matthew were doubly scandalous to their fellow Jews, first because of their irregular submission to the Gentile powers that were, and second because they were infamously dishonest and greedy. Tax collectors like St. Matthew were paid a low commission for their service. It followed, then, that the more money they took from Jews and other members of the Roman Empire, the more money they took home personally. They were thus (and not surprisingly) hated by all citizens of the empire, Jews and non-Jews alike.

But inviting amongst himself the “lesser folk” of society was Jesus’ style. The disciples he wanted were curiously ordinary and unexpected. As St. John Chrysostom wrote, there was nothing more common than a fisherman and nothing more despicable than a tax collector. “That Jesus should have called such a man to be a disciple must have taken everyone’s breath away,” writes the great twentieth-century apologist Frank Sheed. “Fishermen—unlearned in the Law and not very observant of it—were unlikely enough as the chosen companions of a religious leader: but a publican!” We are not told what went on in Matthew’s mind, nor the minds of his friends in the tax booth, nor the onlookers outside, when he got up from his seat and followed Christ out the door. We are not told. We can only wonder.

God offers grace to the sinner. That is what we are being shown in the calling of the tax collector. In all three synoptic Gospels we are told that, following the calling of Matthew, Jesus retreated to his new friend’s home for dinner—a meal he ate not only with Matthew and any family under the same roof but with “tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 9:10). This should strike us as amazing. How many tax collectors and sinners—previously stubborn in their sinful ways—came to the Lord that day, or in the days prior? Again, we are in the dark on the exact number. But clearly there were several in a small slot of time. We can only imagine the looks of joyful bewilderment that Matthew and his fellow tax collectors gave each other from across the table that evening as they enjoyed dinner with Jesus—and as they began to process what was happening to them.

Jesus breaking bread with sinners is a lovely picture. But it is also here in the context of St. Matthew’s Gospel that we first hear the Pharisees speak: “When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Matt. 9:11). The Pharisees are not altogether wrong in their concern. They desire holiness for God’s people. But they are mistaken about the ways of God. Jesus’ response to them is meant to reorient them: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). In other words, God offers grace to the sinner.

And here, Matthew offers us something unique that neither Mark nor Luke record. He tells us that Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, saying, 

Go and learn what this means,

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

For I have come to call

not the righteous but sinners.

Here, Matthew draws our attention to the centrality of divine mercy in Jesus’ ministry and message. The Good News is that God’s grace is on offer for any sinner who chooses to accept it. “The good news of the Gospel consists precisely in this,” writes Pope Benedict, “offering God’s grace to the sinner!” The Pharisees do not understand this message of grace and mercy. They do not recognize in themselves their own sickness. They do not understand that the thing that most pleases and satisfies their God is the thing they most lack. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “The Pharisees have no need of this physician because their illness is to believe that they are well.”

Jesus’ unique reference to Hosea in the Gospel of Matthew puts explicit emphasis on the message of God’s offer of grace to sinners—the message of divine mercy made manifest to the world through Christ’s death and Resurrection. “This miracle of mercy has radically changed humanity’s destiny,” writes St. John Paul II. Knowing this, Matthew wants us to know what God has done for others, yes, but he also wants us to know what God has done for him, that we might believe what God can do for us. Through the miracle of mercy, we can be made new. As Cardinal Ratzinger observed in one of his celebrated interviews with Peter Seewald, “Through his meeting with Jesus, Matthew became quite a different person. . . . Within the fellowship of the twelve, in fellowship with the risen Lord, and finally in his missionary work, he showed that he was truly ‘made new’ and that we can believe this new man.”

We can believe this man. Think about this. Indeed, who among Matthew’s friends and acquaintances in first-century Capernaum would have thought this ever possible? This tax collector, once despised and deemed untrustworthy by all, has been commissioned by God to be an Apostle of the Messiah, an inspired Evangelist, a bearer of the Good News to the world. This should cause each of us to turn inward and wonder: What is it that God wants to do with me?

That we are great sinners may be true, but Christ came to call sinners to greatness. This is the irony of the whole situation: that sin exists, but the existence of sinners is what makes the Good News so good; that God’s infinite power and goodness is revealed in his ability to draw good out of evil. And often it is in the remaking of the greatest sinners—Dismas, Mary Magdalene, Paul, Augustine, and Matthew, just to name a few—that the Lord most makes his mercy known to the world.

Thank God for the calling of St. Matthew, and for Matthew’s response. May the Lord grant us, too, the same Matthean courage to say “yes” the next time we find God’s fingers extended in our direction with unexpected beckoning.