the First Week of Lent
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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
MATTHEW loved money. Matthew, like Judas, must have money. With clean hands if he could; but, clean hands or unclean, Matthew must have money. Now, the surest way and the shortest way for Matthew to make money in the Galilee of that day was to take sides with Cæsar and to become one of Cæsar's tax-gatherers. This, to be sure, would be for Matthew to sell himself to the service of the oppressors of his people; but Matthew made up his mind and determined to do it. Matthew will set his face like a flint for a few years and then he will retire from his toll-booth to spend his rich old age in peace and quietness. He will furnish a country-house for himself up among the hills of Galilee, and he will devote his last days to deeds of devotion and charity. And thus it was that Matthew, a son of Abraham, was found in the unpatriotic and ostracised position of a publican in Capernaum. The publicans were hard-hearted, extortionate, and utterly demoralised men. Their peculiar employment either already found them all that, or else it soon made them all that. "Publicans and sinners"; "publicans and harlots"-we continually come on language like that in the pages of the four Gospels. Well, Matthew had now for a long time been a publican in Capernaum, and he was fast becoming a rich man. But, over against that, he had to content himself with a publican's companionships, and with a publican's inevitable evil conscience. Matthew could not help grinding the faces of the poor. He could not help squeezing the last drop of blood out of this and that helpless debtor. His business would not let Matthew stop to think who was a widow, and who was an orphan, and who was being cruelly treated. The debt was due, it was too long overdue, and it must be paid, if both the debtor and his children have to be sold in the slave-market to pay the debt.
Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter's son, knew Matthew the publican quite well. Perhaps, only too well. Jesus and His mother had by this time migrated from Nazareth to Capernaum. He had often been in Matthew's toll-booth with His mother's taxes, and with other poor people's taxes. Even if not for Himself and for his widowed mother, the carpenter would often leave His bench to go to Matthew's toll-booth to expostulate with him, and to negotiate with him, and to become surety to him for this and that poor neighbour of His who had fallen into sickness, and into a debt that he was not able to pay. The sweat of Jesus' own brow had oftener than once gone to settle Matthew's extortionate charges. 'If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee aught, put that to mine account. I, Jesus, the son of Joseph, have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it'-that would stand in Matthew's books over and over again, till Matthew was almost ready to sell the surety Himself. But by this time Jesus, first of Nazareth and now of Capernaum, who had been every poor widow's cautioner for her rent and for her taxes, had left His father's inherited workshop, and had been baptized by John into a still larger Suretyship. And thus it is that He is back again in Capernaum, no longer a hard-working carpenter, mortgaging all His week's wages and more for all His poor neighbours. But he is now the Messiah Himself! And Matthew in his toll-booth has a thousand thoughts about all that, till he cannot get his columns to come right all he can count. And till one day, just as He was passing Matthew's well-worn doorstep, a widow woman of the city, with her child in her arms, rushed up against our Lord, and exclaimed to Him: "Avenge me of mine adversary!" till she could not tell Him her heart-breaking tale for sobs and tears. And then, with that never-to-be-forgotten look and accent of mingled anger and mercy, our Lord went immediately into the publican's office and said to him: 'Matthew, thou must leave all this life of thine and come and follow Me.' Matthew had always tried to stand well out of eyeshot of our Lord when He was preaching. He felt sure that the Preacher was not well disposed toward him, and his conscience would continually say to his face, How could He be? But at that so commanding gesture, and at those so commanding words, the chains of a lifetime of cruelty and extortion fell on the floor of the receipt of custom; till, scarcely taking time to clasp up his books and to lock up his presses, Matthew the publican of Capernaum rose up and followed our Lord.
Matthew does not say so himself, but Luke is careful to tell us that Matthew made a great feast that very night, and gathered into it a supper-party of his former friends and acquaintances that they might see with their own eyes the Master that he is henceforth to confess, and to follow, and to obey. What a sight to our eyes, far more than to theirs, is Matthew's supper-table tonight! There sits the publican himself at the head of the table, and the erewhile carpenter of Capernaum in the seat of honour beside him. And then the whole house is full of what we may quite correctly describe as a company of social and religious outcasts. An outcast with us usually means some one who has impoverished, and demoralised, and debauched himself with indolence and with vice till he is both penniless in purse and reprobate in character. We have few, if any, rich outcasts in our city and society. But the outcast publicans of that night were well-to-do, if not absolutely wealthy men. They were men who had made themselves rich, and had at the same time made themselves outcasts, by siding with the oppressors of their people and by exacting of the people more than was their due. And they were, as a consequence, excommunicated from the Church, and ostracised from all patriotic and social and family life. What, then, must the more thoughtful of them have felt as they entered Matthew's supper-room that night and sat down at the same table with a very prophet, and some said-Matthew himself had said it in his letter of invitation-more than a prophet. And, then, all through the supper, if He was a prophet He was so unlike a prophet; and, especially, so unlike the last of the prophets. He was so affable, so humble, so kind, so gentle, with absolutely nothing at all in His words or in His manner to upbraid any of them, or in any way to make any of them in anything uneasy. They had all supped with Matthew before, but that was the first night for many years that any man with any good name to lose had broken bread at the publican's table. He had given suppers on occasion before, but Jesus had never been invited, nor Peter, nor James, nor John. And it was the presence of Jesus and His disciples that night that led to the scene which so shines on this page of the New Testament. For there were Pharisees in Capernaum in those days, just as there were publicans and sinners. And just as the publicans were ever on the outlook for more money; and just as the sinners were ever on the outlook for another supper and another dance; so the Pharisees were ever on the outlook for a fresh scandal, and for something to find fault with in their neighbours. "Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?" the Pharisees of Capernaum demanded of Jesus' disciples. And the disciples were still too much Pharisees themselves to be able to give a very easy answer to that question. But Jesus had his answer ready. Grace was poured into His lips at that opportune moment till He replied: "They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." Long years afterwards, when Matthew was writing this autobiographic passage in his Gospel, the whole scene of that supper-party rose up before him like yesternight. 'Jesus, now in glory,' he said to himself, 'was sitting here, as it were. James and John there. Myself at the door, divided between welcoming my old companions and warning them off. Some Pharisees from the synagogue are coming up with their lamps. Then their loud and angry voices; and then His voice with more pity in it than anger, calling sinners to repentance.' It was a night to be remembered by Matthew.
When Matthew rose up and left all and followed our Lord, the only thing he took with him out of his old occupation was his pen and ink. And it is well for us that he did take that pen and ink with him, since he took it with him to such good purpose. For, never once did our Lord sit down on a mountain side or on a sea-shore to teach His disciples; never once did He enter a synagogue and take up the Prophets or the Psalmists to preach; never once did He talk at any length by the way, that Matthew was not instantly at His side. Till Matthew came to be known not so much as Matthew the disciple, or as the former publican of Capernaum, but rather as that silent man with the sleepless pen and ink-horn. It needed a practised, and an assiduous, and an understanding pen to take down the Sermon on the Mount, and to report and arrange the parables, and to seize with such correctness and with such insight the terrible sermons of his Master's last week of preaching. But Matthew did all that, and we have all that to this day in his Gospel. The bag would have been safe, and it would have been kept well filled, in Matthew's money-managing hands, but Matthew had far more important matters than the most sacred money matters to attend to. What a service, above all price, were Matthew's hands ordained to do as soon as his hands were washed from sin and uncleanness in the Fountain opened in that day! What a service it was to build that golden bridge by which so many of his kinsmen according to the flesh at once passed over into the better covenant, the Surety of which covenant is Christ! "The Gospel according to St. Matthew: the Book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." "Saintliness not forfeited by the penitent," is the title of one of our finest English sermons, and, it may here be added, neither is service.
"And Matthew the publican." Now, we would never have known that but for Matthew himself. Neither Mark, nor Luke, nor John, nor Paul ever calls Matthew by that bad name. It is Matthew himself alone who in as many words says to us, "Come, all ye that fear God, and I will tell what He has done for my soul." It is Matthew himself alone who publishes and perpetuates to all time his own infamy. Ashamed of himself, both as a publican and an apostle, till he cannot look up, the text is the only footprint of himself that St. Matthew leaves behind him on the sands of Scripture. Our first Gospel is his holy workmanship, and this text, so deeply imbedded into it, is the sure seal of its author's Christian temper and Apostolic character. "Position and epithet are indicative both of natural humility and modesty, as well as of evangelical self-abasement."
"They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick." Happy intrusion, and fortunate fault-finding of the Pharisees which ended in these ever-blessed words of our Saviour! And then, these words also: "I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." Sick and sinful men, do you hear that? Are you truly and sincerely sick with sin? Then He who has made you sick will keep you sick till you come to Him to heal you. Are you a sinner with an evil life holding you like a chain in a cruel, an unclean, a hopeless bondage? Then-
He comes! the prisoners to relieve,
In Satan's bondage held;
The gates of brass before Him burst,
The iron fetters yield.
He comes! from darkening scales of vice
To clear the inward sight;
And on the eyeballs of the blind
To pour celestial light.
He comes! the broken hearts to bind,
The bleeding souls to cure:
And with the treasures of His grace
T' enrich the humble poor.
Are you that prisoner? Are you held in Satan's bondage? Is your inward sight clogged up with the scales of vice? Is your heart broken? And is your very soul within you bleeding? Are you a publican? Are you a sinner? Are you a harlot? Look at Matthew with his Gospel in his hand! Look at Zacchæus restoring fourfold! Look at Mary Magdalene, first at the sepulchre. Look unto Me, their Saviour says to thee also: Look unto Me, and be thou saved also. And so I will!
Thy promise is my only plea,
With this I venture nigh:
Thou callest burden'd souls to Thee,
And such, O Lord, am I.
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Matthew'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wbc/​m/matthew.html. 1901.