Friday, September 21, 2012
Feast of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist
We thank you, heavenly Father, for the witness of your apostle and evangelist Matthew to the Gospel of your Son our Savior; and we pray that, after his example, we may with ready wills and hearts obey the calling of our Lord to follow him; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Matthew was an Apostle and Evangelist, as was John, and tradition states that he was also a martyr. Matthew's name appears in all four lists of the Twelve, so we can safely assume that he really was in that group, although he is also known as Levi. He was a Galilean, although Eusebius claims that Matthew was Syrian. Tradition states that Matthew preached to the Hebrews, and the Church Father Papias wrote that Matthew had written a collection of the sayings of Jesus in Aramaic. This collection of sayings in Aramaic may have been the basis for the gospel which bears his name.
Now, usually we don't really know much about the Apostles, they left no autobiographies for historians to use. What we know about Matthew comes from the gospels. He was a publican, a tax collector, an occupation despised by most Jews. Tax collectors were seen as collaborators with the Roman government, as extortionists who took money from their own people to help further the cause of the Roman oppressors and to line their own pockets. Most people hated tax collectors and saw them as traitors, and many of the most devout refused to marry into a family which had a tax collector in it. One can see the disgust for tax collectors in some of the passages we hear from the New Testament. Even Jesus used the name as a disparaging term; he said that when Christians have a dispute they are to try to work it out alone, and if that didn't work they were to bring a witness and try to work it out, and if that didn't settle things the offending person was to be treated like a Pagan or a Tax Collector. Since he was a tax collector Matthew was obviously not the kind of person anyone wanted to be seen with, yet when Jesus passed by his office, which was probably a stand like a kiosko, Jesus looked at Matthew sitting there and said, "Follow me." And Matthew dropped everything and followed Jesus. Jesus and the disciples came to Matthew's house for dinner, and many of Matthew's fellow tax collectors and friends came and joined Jesus and the disciples at table. Since Matthew was a social outcast, we can assume that his friends were, too, and the gospel calls them "sinners." When the Pharisees saw this group of outcasts sitting together, eating and talking and drinking wine and having a good time, they asked one of the disciples "What kind of example is this from your teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riffraff?" And when Jesus heard their question, he said, "Who needs a doctor, the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this scripture means: 'I'm after mercy, not religion.' I'm here to invite outsiders, the sinners, not to coddle insiders!" I think that we all forget this at times, that we are all sinners and that Jesus came for sinners, not for those who are already perfect. The truth is, none of us are perfect, we are all sinners, we have all missed the mark, and Jesus came for all of us .So Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector and outcast, to follow him, and Matthew dropped everything and said "yes" to Jesus' call. In a way it's good that Matthew was already an outcast because becoming one of the Twelve, one of Jesus' followers, was going to keep him in that category.
As I said earlier, tradition states that Matthew was the apostle to the Hebrews, and that he wrote a collection of the sayings of Jesus. Scholars are not really sure whether the Apostle Matthew actually wrote the gospel attributed to him; it may bear his name because it contains his collection of sayings. One of the main characteristics of Matthew's gospel is the fullness with which it records the Lord's teaching; it has a special interest in the relation of the Gospel to Jewish Law, the Torah, with its stress upon Christianity being the New Torah. It also emphasizes the special commission given to Peter, and it contains the stories of the Resurrection appearances in Galilee. The Greek of Matthew's gospel is much more elegant than the Greek of Mark, and it also translates well into other languages. Because of this, it is the gospel most suitable for public reading, and for this reason it is probably the best known of the four gospels.
As is often the case with stories about the Apostles, there is some disagreement as to the rest of Matthew's life. There is a tradition that Matthew left Palestine to travel and preach, and that he wrote his gospel so that a witness would continue in his stead. The Roman Martyrology states that St. Matthew was martyred in Ethiopia, while the Hieronymianum, the martyrology of Asia Minor and Greece says that he was martyred in Persia in the town of Tarrium out on the Persian Gulf. Another tradition states that he suffered martyrdom in Pontus, and the town of Salerno in Italy claimed to have his relics.
The Martyrdom of St. Matthew
There is an apocryphal Acts and Martyrdom of St. Matthew, most probably of Gnostic origin, and it claims that Matthew was martyred in “Myrna,” wherever that is. I will tell you the story of St. Matthew’s martyrdom according to this text.
St. Matthew was on a mountain, resting, when he had a vision of the Christ Child and had a discussion with him about the fate of King Herod (“He dwells, indeed, in Hades; and there has been prepared for him fire unquenchable, Gehenna without end, bubbling mire, worm that sleeps not, because he cut off three thousand infants, wishing to slay the child Jesus, the ancient of the ages; but of all these ages I am father”). The child then instructs Matthew to go down the mountain to Myrna, the city of the man-eaters, and plant a rod next to the church Matthew and Andrew had founded. So, Matthew agrees to do so, and while entering the town he meets Fulvana, the wife of the king, and her son Fulvanus and his wife, Erva. All three of them were possessed by unclean spirits and cried out, “Who has brought you here again, Matthew? or who has given you the rod for our destruction? for we see also the child Jesus, the Son of God, who is with you. Do not go then, O Matthew, to plant the rod for the food, and for the transformation of the man-eaters: for I have found what I shall do to you. For since you drove me out of this city, and prevent me from fulfilling my wishes among the man-eaters, behold, I will raise up against you the king of this city, and he will burn you alive.” Matthew laid his hands on their heads and the demons were evicted and the people were made whole, and they followed him. Matthew went on into town and planted the rod as instructed and all manner of miracles took place, which we won’t get into here.
Now the king, Fulvanus, was happy when he learned that his wife and son and daughter-in-law had been delivered of their demons, but then he became jealous when he noticed that they were devoted to Matthew. His family had spent the night in the church with Matthew and the local bishop, Plato, and were baptized by Matthew. This increased Fulvanus’ jealousy and he decided to execute Matthew. It didn’t help that the demon Matthew had cast out of Queen Fulvana had taken on the form of a soldier and told Fulvanus that Matthew was a stranger and a sorcerer and a former tax collector, and was made an apostle by a person who was crucified, so why would you want your wife and son and daughter-in-law listening to the likes of him? The king agreed; he had no choice but to kill Matthew. Meanwhile, the Christ Child warned Matthew that the king’s men would be coming to get him. The king sent four soldiers after Matthew and Plato, but when they arrived at the church they heard voices but couldn’t see anyone, so they went back to the king to report that no one was there. This really made the king angry, so he sent ten more soldiers, who were man-eaters, and told them, “Sneak into the church and tear Matthew and Plato into pieces and eat them.” When the soldiers got to the church, they saw Matthew and Plato and the Lord Jesus, who was in the form of a beautiful boy holding a torch, which he used to burn their eyes! The soldiers ran back to the palace speechless. The king was really angry now, and he tried to get some advice on how to take Matthew from the demon/soldier, but the demon/soldier admitted that he, the demon, couldn’t do anything as God was protecting Matthew.
Now the story gets really strange: the king finds Matthew at the church and is struck blind. He cries out to Matthew to heal him, because God has decided that he wants Matthew in heaven now, and the king is to bury his body in their city as a testimony of salvation! So Fulvanus is healed and his sight is returned and he grabs Matthew by the hand and drags him to the seashore where executions take place. The king told the executioners that he heard that the God of Matthew saves those who believe in him from death by fire, but they’ll get around it by following his orders. He had them nail Matthew to the ground and cover him with paper smeared with dolphin’s oil and then cover him with brimstone and asphalt and pitch AND brushwood, and then light it all on fire. And if any of the Christians get in the way, they were to suffer the same fate. The executioners followed the king’s orders but when they put the fire to the highly flammable pile it turned to dew, and all the people watching cried out with one voice: “The only God is the Christians', who assists Matthew, in whom also we have believed: the only God is the Christians', who preserves His own apostle in the fire.” So the king had coals of fire taken from the furnace to be piled on Matthew. He also had idols of gold and silver brought to surround Matthew, to keep him from bewitching the fire. The entire pile was re-ignited, and Matthew looked up into heaven and prayed: “O God the Father, O Lord Jesus Christ, deliver me, and burn down their gods which they worship; and let the fire also pursue the king even to his palace, but not to his destruction, for perhaps he will repent and be converted.” When the king saw the flames rise higher and higher, he said, “Has your magic been of any help to you, Matthew? Can your Jesus help you now?” All of the sudden all the fire left Matthew and surrounded the idols instead. The fire melted the idols of gold and silver and also burned several soldiers to death. The king shouted “Woe is me! I should have used idols of stone, which don’t melt down!” The fire then took on the shape of a dragon and chased the king all over the place but wouldn’t let him find safety in the palace. Fulvanus ran back to Matthew and said, “I beseech you, whoever you are, O man, whether magician or sorcerer or god, or angel of God, whom so great a pyre has not touched, remove from me this dreadful and fiery dragon; forget the evil I have done, as also when you made me receive my sight.” Matthew forgave Fulvanus and actually called off the dragon, which disappeared, as did the flames. Matthew then looked up to heaven and prayed in Hebrew, commending his soul to the Lord and said, “Peace to you!” And, having glorified the Lord, he completed his martyrdom. Fulvanus took the body of Matthew and placed it on a golden bed. While they were bringing the bed back to the palace, all saw Matthew rise up to heaven, led by the beautiful boy, and twelve men in shining garments and wearing gold crowns met him. Everyone saw the beautiful boy crown Matthew, and in a flash of lightening all disappeared into heaven. And just when you thought the story couldn’t get any stranger, the king decided to put Matthew’s body in an iron coffin and throw it into the deepest part of the sea. Bishop Plato and others went to the church where they kept a vigil throughout the night. The next morning they came out of the church and saw Matthew standing on the water some seven furlongs from shore, accompanied by two men in shining garments and the beautiful boy. The king saw all this and ran out of the palace to the bishop and confessed in front of the bishop and priests and deacons that he believed in the True God, and in Jesus Christ, and asked to be baptized and given communion. After communion, Matthew appeared before them all. He told Fulvanus and his son that their names would be changed to Matthew, and that Fulvana’s named would be changed to Sophia, and Erva, the daughter-in-law’s name would be changed to Synesis. Then Matthew appointed the king a presbyter, and his son a deacon, and the queen a presbytress, and the daughter-in-law a deaconess. Then he blessed them and vanished. And they all went and destroyed all the idols and everyone in the kingdom became Christians. And King Matthew was given the gift of healing. And I’m exhausted after telling this story, as you probably are after reading it!