During the days of Our Lord’s life on earth, there were two categories of people whom the Jews considered the lowest of the low, morally and socially. They were the tax-collectors and the prostitutes. This is not surprising, because in most societies, those two groups have been at least unpopular. No one likes to pay taxes, and prostitution has always been seen as a cancer upon the moral complexion of a people. But in Jesus’s time and place, the tax-collectors were particularly hated because they were Jewish men who worked for the occupying Roman government. It was their duty to get taxes out of their fellow Jews to send to the Roman procurator in Jerusalem, who in turn, sent a portion of it to Rome. Thus the tax-collectors (publicans, they were called) were regarded as traitors to their own people, collaborators with the hated Roman occupiers of the Holy Land, and sometimes extortioners as well since they took as much as they possibly could from the defenseless citizens.
It is interesting that Jesus chose one tax-collector and one woman out of whom seven devils had been driven to be among his intimate friends. We celebrate that former tax-collector on September 21, in the person of Saint Matthew, the apostle and evangelist. We celebrated that formerly devil-possessed woman in July in the person of Saint Mary Magdalen, who after her conversion, stood beside Our Lady at the foot of the cross.
Try to imagine the honor that Jesus conferred upon Matthew, the tax-collector. Our Lord passed by the customs post one day where Matthew was seated, busy at his despised occupation. Saint Matthew himself describes the encounter for us in his gospel. Jesus simply looked at him and said, “Follow me.” And Matthew got up and followed him. I’m not sure whether Matthew realized that Christ was calling him to a permanent discipleship, to a total change of lifestyle. But that’s what it turned out to be. Matthew did not return to his customs post. He became one of the twelve apostles, itinerant companions of Jesus, who were with him in close friendship for the rest of Our Lord’s day on earth. Then the apostles received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and began their preaching to the world.
Matthew also became one of the four evangelists—the writers of the four gospels. So those simple words of Jesus: “Follow me,” led this much-favored man to become a friend of Jesus, an apostle, an evangelist, one of the first bishops of the Church, a martyr, and one of the greatest of our saints. Others had only contempt for him. Jesus loved him and thirsted for his soul, and recognized the potential for good in him.
Let us pray for our Pope and Bishops, the present-day successors of Saint Peter and the other apostles. And let us pray for all those who teach and study Sacred Scripture. The role of apostles and evangelists is still active in the Church, which has as its destiny to be the light of the world. Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This Message was composed some years ago.