Last year my daughter stood in line for 90 minutes to purchase an autographed copy of Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan for me for Father’s Day. There’s something about meeting the author in person to gain a little insight to the content between the covers. So what can we learn about Matthew, the author?
First, he was a tax collector who left all to follow Jesus. (Matthew 9:9) Matthew’s tax booth was probably located along one of the busy trade routes near Capernaum. It was there that Christ met him and called him to leave his business behind in order to follow him. Tax collectors were viewed as Roman sympathizers and traitors to the nation. The Romans would enlist Israelites to serve as tax collectors. Tax collectors, with the backing of the Roman army, would collect what Rome demanded, and then any amount over that they would keep as their fees. Many tax collectors were unscrupulous, demanding far in excess what was required in order to line their own pockets. Religious leaders reckoned tax collectors as among the worst sinners of the day.
Second, he got a new name (Mark 2:14). Mark and Luke both refer to him as Levi, son of Alphaeus. Somewhere along the line, as time progressed, his name was changed from Levi to Matthew, which means, “gift of Yahweh.”
Third, he threw a party for Jesus and his disciples. (Matthew 9:10-13) After his encounter with Christ, Matthew threw a party in order to introduce his friends and co-workers to Jesus. We immediately see his concern for his friends and co-workers. Because of his vocational choice, these may have been the only relationships he had in life.
Next, he became formalized as a member of Jesus’ apostolic band. (Matthew 10:1-4) Simon the Zealot was also a disciple, creating an interesting group dynamic. Zealots were violent resistance fighters who opposed Roman occupation. The word literally means, “blood letter.” Matthew, on the other hand, as a tax collector would have been viewed as a Roman sympathizer. That would have certainly made for an interesting dinner conversation! I can’t help but notice that even in the selection of his disciples, Jesus modeled reconciliation, both to God and to one another.
Finally, he took a pen on his journey with Jesus. Matthew was certainly a humble man. He didn’t self reference, like those who drop their own names or speak of themselves in third person. There is not one quotation attributed to Matthew in the New Testament. Following the ascension and upper room, Matthew goes off the grid. Legend has it that Matthew spent several years in Jerusalem, then moved south to Ethiopia (perhaps with Andrew) where he was martyred.
Learning a bit about Matthew is helpful to our understanding of how his gospel functions. But the Gospel of Matthew is not about Matthew. It’s about Jesus and the salvation he offers. Matthew’s gospel is not about the message of forgiveness that we believe so we can get our sins forgiven and go to heaven when we die. His invitation is to “leave the booth” and follow Christ.