Matthew of Capernaum
Matthew was born c. AD 5 (3765–3766 in the Hebrew calendar) in the Roman district of Galilee. Also known as Levi, he was the son of Alphaeus and brother to James (Mark 2:14; cf. Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18). This means he came form a Levitical family who named him Matti, from the Hebrew word for "gift" (mattat; H4991) with an implication of God's favor. As an adult, Matthew moved to Capernaum to work as a publican (Greek: telōnēs; G5057, lit. one who "pays at the end"), a local-national contractor who worked for the Roman government. In this role, he primarily collected taxes from his fellow Jews to send back to Caesarea Maritima, the Roman capital of Judea. The Jewish people considered such publicans to be traitors of Israel in all of its sociopolitical and spiritual dimensions—they were domestic enemies of God and the nation.
Matthew the Publican
A tax collector was not just a government revenue agent, but used tactics more commonly associated with organized crime. Yes, we could say that Matthew was more mobster than auditor. The Romans auctioned individual tax and debt collections to their publicans under contract, an integral part the census. The collectors received a lump-sum pay advance in exchange for services rendered. Even though the Romans sent officers to oversee tax collection, the publicans customarily bribed them in the form of kickbacks. The imperial income tax was technically set at one percent starting from AD 6; however, nearly every public service and item carried a tax. In total, the average Judean/Galilean paid about fifty percent of their gross income on imperial and local taxes. The publicans often used intimidation and bullying tactics to extort money, which was the reason John the Baptist told them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you" (Luke 3:13). Jews and gentiles alike considered tax collectors to be low-society; even the Roman statesman Cicero (106–43 BC) viewed their job as unfitting of a proper gentleman.
Matthew worked at the tollhouse (Greek: telōnion; G5058) in Capernaum on the popular trade route between the Mediterranean seaports and Damascus. He was the opposite of Simon the Zealot, one a traitor to his people and the other an ultranationalist. Perhaps, Jesus chose these two men as apostles to both counterbalance each other and to show that his own teaching was apolitical. When Matthew first met Jesus while sitting at this tax booth, he got up immediately and followed him. We do not know what the Lord said to him aside from "follow me" (Luke 5:27). Matthew, like the tax collector in Jesus' parable, said in his heart, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" (Luke 18:13). He was living the "Roman dream" with a large house, status, influence, wealth, and many friends. Yet, Matthew gave up his career and his estate to celebrate Jesus with a great banquet and to be his disciple (Luke 5:29).
Matthew the Evangelist
After Pentecost, Matthew began to evangelize with the other apostles circa AD 33. He continued to preach in the Jewish communities throughout Judea province. Incidentally, the Babylonian Talmud mentions a certain disciple of Jesus the Nazarene called Mattai whom the Sanhedrin planned to execute for blasphemy (Sanh. 43a:22). Sometime around AD 55, Matthew started to write his biography of Jesus to a predominately Jewish audience. However, most biblical scholars believe that John Mark wrote the first of the four canonical gospels, with Matthew and Luke of Antioch each using the same list of Jesus' sayings in Aramaic—hypothetically known as Q, from the German word quelle, "source". In the early second century, Papias of Hierapolis (AD 70–155) testified, "Of Matthew he had stated as follows: 'Matthew composed his history [the Greek word here is logia; G3051, "sayings"] in the Hebrew dialect, and everyone translated it as he was able'" (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.14-17). Therefore, Papias considered Matthew the first to write out of the four evangelists. However, his use of the noun logia may not refer to his full biography of Jesus, but only to a raw, unedited list of quotes. Matthew probably wrote his account based on Mark, knowing that he recorded the eyewitness testimony of Simon Peter while attending to him in Rome. As a tax collector who liaised between Roman officers and their Jewish debtors, Matthew was fluent in both Aramaic and the imperial business language of koinē Greek. He portrayed Jesus in very Jewish word pictures, especially as both the new Israel and the new Moses; one who overcame the temptations of which the Israelites failed (Matt. 4:1-11; cf. Num. 14:34-34), who also enhanced the Mosaic Law with both positivity and higher expectations (5-7).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, you called Matthew from collecting taxes to become your apostle and evangelist: Grant us the grace to forsake all covetous desires and inordinate love of riches, that we may follow you as he did and proclaim to the world around us the
good news of your salvation; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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