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The Recovery of St. Matthew

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.

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