Who Was Saint Matthew?
The Book of Matthew is the first book in the New Testament. Because of its placement, it is safe to assume that it has probably been read more times than almost any other book in that testament.
But who was Matthew? Why does he have a Gospel named after him? What was his relationship with Jesus?
In this article, we’ll talk a little bit about who Saint Matthew was, how he was likely treated by his community, and how Jesus treated him.
Who Is Saint Matthew?
So who is Saint Matthew? Matthew was one of the first followers of Christ. He also went by the name Levi. While we aren’t sure how much of the Book of Matthew was actually written by Matthew, we know that he was a tax collector.
Like Paul, Matthew was Jewish by birthright and heritage, but employed by Rome. Tax collectors worked as contractors for the state and were incredibly disliked among others in Jerusalem.
In fact, they were often grouped together with lenders, gamblers, and other less honorable trades. In fact, being a trade collector would have made Matthew ineligible to become a judge in Jerusalem or to act as a witness in any official setting.
And there are major historical reasons for this dislike of Roman tax collectors.
What The Old Testament Tells Us About Tax Collectors
To understand why the people of Israel had a problem with tax collectors like Matthew, you have to understand a little bit about the Old Testament.
The Old Testament starts with the creation of the world and mankind. Adam and Eve leave the garden and have children who compose the entire human race. Society follows a patriarchal order until the people of Israel are led by Moses out of Egypt. From there, God sets up a series of judges to rule. The people of Israel eventually ask for the judges to be replaced by a king and God chooses Saul to be the first King.
Most of the Old Testament is written during the time of the Kings.
By the time Babylonian Captivity occurs, Israel’s land and Kings are seen by the people as proof that they are God’s chosen people. But Babylonian captivity essentially eliminates both of those things. It also eliminates a lot of religious rituals, language, and cultural norms once considered normal to the people of Israel.
By the time the New Testament happens, the people of Israel are under Roman occupation. They don’t control their own land. Their religious government looks wildly different than it did when God organized it. Everything is different.
And so many people resented that Roman occupation because they felt like it was chipping away at what few traditions they were able to hold onto.
So not only did people dislike tax collectors because people have always disliked paying taxes, but they disliked them because they saw these tax collectors as betrayers of the People of Israel. These were occupied people who made a living doing work on behalf of the Roman Empire.
It was seen as a political betrayal among those who yearned to go back to a time when Israel was sovereign and explicitly ruled by God by way of land and Kings.
Nonetheless, Jesus saw Matthew’s righteousness and made him an apostle and Matthew served Jesus faithfully for life.
Jesus’s Association With Matthew
Keeping the history of the Old Testament in mind, it makes much more sense why the Pharisees were angry with Jesus when he ate with Matthew.
9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.
11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.
13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
(Matthew 9 as found in the NIV)
The Pharisees differentiated between tax collectors and sinners, but they clearly did not like Jesus eating with either. But Jesus made it clear that it didn’t matter whether you were a sinner or a tax collector; he came to help those who needed it. He didn’t come to sit with those who thought they were perfect.
For example, here’s what Jesus said in the fifth chapter of Matthew.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
(Matthew 5 as found in the NIV)
Just like the Parable of the Samaritan, Jesus used a group generally disliked in Jerusalem to prove a point.
It’s not enough to love those who love you. It’s not enough to be kind to those who are kind to you. Everybody does that. Even the people you don’t like.
Instead, Jesus calls on us to love those who don’t love us, to be kind to those who aren’t kind to us, and to see people as God sees them.
Learn More About Matthew From The Chosen
Jesus didn't see Matthew as a tax collector. He didn’t see him for his heritage. Jesus saw Matthew for who he was. Jesus saw a righteous man who would follow Jesus and teach Christ’s gospel forever.
On The Chosen season 1, episodes 1, 2, & 7, Matthew is portrayed in a way that will help people understand him and connect with him.
If you haven’t already, check out Angel Studios’ The Chosen to view the first-ever multi-season show about the life of Jesus. This historical drama set in Judaea and Galilee in the first century CE follows Jesus and those who he met and ministered to.