Jesus Had a Purple Inner-Circle

Icon written by Tricia Hampo

On September 21st the Church honors St. Matthew, Evangelist and Apostle.

Here’s the thing about St. Matthew: while this person appears in all of the Gospels, in Mark and Luke it is Levi, not Matthew, that is called into discipleship.

Oh, what’s in a name?

Well, quite a bit, actually. Some ancient scholars took these two people to be the same person, with “Matthew” being the name Levi was given after he started following Jesus (Jesus had a habit of giving nicknames, after all). Some regarded them as distinct individuals.

Regardless, two things are known about this person named Matthew: the ancient church knew him as a tax collector, and his name in Hebrew means “gift from God.” Now, the above information is only ironic if you know how tax collectors were regarded in ancient Judaism and ancient Palestine. Often tax collectors were seen as puppets of the state, and were cut out of Jewish activities. But it’s worth repeating that Jesus had a tax collector in his trusted circle, this one whom others considered suspicious and untrustworthy. Jesus was “big tent” before it was en vogue.

We don’t know much about St. Matthew. Tradition ties him to being the writer of the first Gospel, which we have no proof of and, because of when the Gospel was written, seems generally unlikely. Tradition also considered him, generally, as the oldest apostle…which makes it even less likely that he wrote the Gospel text.

Some legends have Matthew preaching throughout Judea after the ascension. Some have him going as far as Ethiopia with the Gospel. Some even claim he was a vegetarian (why this is important, I’m not sure, but no other apostle gets to claim this distinction).We’re not even sure how Matthew died. Some say by old age, and some claim it was by martyrdom.With all this confusion, I think it’s important to point out a key thing about Matthew: he was disliked in the ancient world, and yet he was in the inner circle.

Think on this: Jesus had St. Matthew and St. Simon in his inner circle. Matthew was a tax collector, a government agent. Simon was called “the Zealot,” and was a radical antigovernment activist. And both were in the Jesus camp. And both, we must imagine, had to give up some of their ideological purity to be there, right? And both had to give up some of their prejudices to entertain the presence of the other, right?

St. Matthew is a reminder for me, and for the church, that Divine work is larger than the small ideological crevices we hew out for ourselves in this life.

Let those with ears, hear.

-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s _New Book of Festivals & Commemorations_

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