Wednesday, September 21, 2011

From Quisling Tax-Taker to Giving Apostle

"Not long after the end of the Second World War in Europe – on October 24, 1945 to be specific – a Norwegian citizen who had undergone a lengthy trial was convicted of treason and executed. He had collaborated in the Nazi invasion of Norway, and had been proclaimed the puppet “minister president” of Norway by the Nazis during the occupation. He made every effort to Nazify the Norwegian church, the schools and the youth organizations, and he personally sent over 1,000 Norwegian Jews to death in concentration camps. His crimes were so heinous and his action so treacherous that his very name entered the English language. His name was Vidkun Abraham Lauritz Jonson
Quisling. A “quisling” is a craven, unprincipled, low-life traitor, and collaborator with the enemy, and is universally hated and passionately despised by all.

And so was Levi, the first-century Galilean tax collector, a publican. He was a Jew who made himself fat and rich by collaborating with the despised Roman conquerors of Palestine. And he made his riches by taking money from his own people, and by skimming his profits off the top. (Tax collecting was farmed out by the Romans to individuals who were expected to return a set amount to the Romans and could keep whatever else they extorted from the people for themselves.) Levi’s particular area of operation was at the shore of the Lake of Gennésaret near Capérnaum where he collected customs from the trade commodities that were transported over the lake. He also extracted a toll from all passengers arriving by boat. (As a matter of fact, in an ancient Hebrew translation of the Gospels, he is called “The Lord
of the Passage”, since he controlled all commerce and traffic passing into Capérnaum.) This man was an extremely rich and an utterly despised person—despised by both Jews and Gentiles. He betrayed his own people. He was a quisling. He was not allowed in the Temple, and devout Jews would even be made ritually unclean just by touching him or speaking to him.

And then one day Jesus, having lately cured a famous paralytic, left Capérnaum (where he resided much of the time) and went walking out by the Lake of Gennésaret. And he came upon the customs house that Levi directed, with its guards and its soldiers and its lines of citizens and traders waiting to pay their taxes and tolls, and Jesus looked in, saw Levi at his desk, and said to him simply, “Follow me!” Certainly Levi knew who Jesus was by then, and certainly he considered himself absolutely the last man in Palestine to whom the Nazarene prophet would even speak. And yet, mysteriously, there was no moment of hesitation on his part. He walked away from his responsibilities, from his riches, from his future—and he became… – he became MATTHEW.

“Matthew” is his name in all the Gospel lists of Apostles, and quite obviously it is a “conversion name” given him by Jesus (just as Cephas was renamed “Peter” and Saul renamed “Paul”). The name “Matthew” means “the giving of Yahweh”—a wonderful reversal from Levi the taker to Matthew the giver.

As a publican, it is likely that Matthew had a better education than some of the Apostles who were fishermen or the like. The ancient tradition that he was the first to write a full Gospel seems entirely probable. It is not surprising, then, to hear Origen’s claim that his incredible library at Caesaréa (in the early 3rd century) contained a copy of the original Aramaic text of the Gospel of Saint Matthew! Nor is it a surprise to read in his Ecclesiastical History that Eusebius claims to have seen Matthew’s original Gospel (which he says was “written in Hebrew” though this could also mean “Aramaic”, since Aramaic was in effect “vernacular Hebrew”). Eusebius claims that Matthew wrote his Gospel for Jewish Christians before he left Palestine. Páppias, writing in the year 130, said that Matthew had composed a Logia or gospel in the Hebrew tongue. And the missionary Pantaénus mentions finding Matthew’s Aramaic Gospel circulating in India in about the year 200.

That Aramaic Gospel, no copy of which has survived, was apparently the raw material for the writer of the Greek Gospel of Saint Matthew who clearly translated, revised, and adapted Matthew’s original. It is this “Greek Matthew” which we now translate in our modern New Testaments.

Again, a wonderful transformation in which Matthew leaves the tax-collector’s desk and ends up at a scribe’s desk, writing his Gospel.

And with the gift to the world of his Gospel, any reliable record of the rest of Matthew’s life or death disappears. The Jewish Talmud recorded a tradition that he was put to death on orders of the Sanhédrin, but it is also said he was martyred in Ethiopia when he supposedly converted the cannibal king’s consort. From Ethiopia his supposed relics were brought back to Salerno. However, equally creditable traditions have him preaching and dying in Persia, or in Macedonia, or in several places in the far East.

There is a famous unfinished statue by Michelangelo of St. Matthew; Bach wrote his famous “St. Matthew’s Passion” based on the Matthean Gospel; one of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings is the Saint Matthew in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome; Rusconi’s statue in St. John Lateran has been called one of the most superb of the 19th century, and the Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film version of “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” is one of the finest religious films of our day.

In the poetic interpretation of the four heavenly living creatures of the Apocalypse, Matthew was originally identified with the lion, but Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine changed that and assigned him to the creature with a man’s face, because his Gospel begins with the human genealogy of Jesus.

And, in that wonderful long-lived fiction that the Apostles’ Creed was actually composed piece-by-piece and line-by-line by the Twelve Apostles themselves, Matthew is credited with the phrases: “The Holy Catholic Church” and “The Communion of Saints”.

It is not surprising that the one-time tax-collector Matthew has long been portrayed as the patron saint of bankers and bookkeepers, but one delightfully unique and very old painting of him shows Matthew wearing eye-glasses—the only bespectacled saint of the first thousand years of the Church’s history!"

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