SAINT MATTHEW THE APOSTLE
from The Golden Legend1
Matthew was also called Levi. Matthew is interpreted a gift hastily given, or a giver of counsel. Or it comes from magnus, great, and Theos, God, meaning great unto God, or from manus, hand, and Theos, meaning the hand of God. For Matthew was a gift hastily given by reason of his speedy conversion, a giver of counsel by his salutary preaching, great unto God by the perfection of his life and the hand of God by his writing of the Gospel. Levi is interpreted assumed, or united, or added, or attached; for he was assumed from the exaction of the taxes, united to the apostles, added to the number of the evangelists, and attached to the catalogue of the martyrs.
While Matthew the apostle was preaching in Ethiopia, in a city called Nadaber, he found two magicians named Zaroes and Arphaxat, who so deluded men by their sorceries that they lost the use of their limbs and their reason, whereat the magicians were so filled with pride that they made men worship them as gods. Matthew, having found hostel in the house of that eunuch of Queen Candace who was baptized by Philip, unmasked the magicians' tricks in such wise that whatsoever they wrought to the harm of men, he converted to their welfare.
The eunuch asked Saint Matthew how he was able to speak and understand so many tongues. In answer, Matthew explained to him that when the Holy Ghost came upon the apostles, He gave knowledge of all tongues, so that, as those who had sought from pride to build a tower reaching to Heaven had been stayed therefrom by the confusion of tongues, so by the knowledge of tongues the apostles might build a tower, not of stones but of virtues, whereby all who believed might mount to Heaven.
Then came one who announced that the magicians were approaching with two dragons, which belched forth a sulphurous fire from their mouths and nostrils, and slew all within reach. The apostle, arming himself with the sign of the cross, went out to them confidently; and as soon as the dragons saw him, they fell asleep at his feet. Then said he to the sorcerers: 'Where then is your skill! Awaken them if you can: for had I not prayed the Lord, I should have turned upon you the bale which you thought to inflict upon me!' And when the populace gathered together, he commanded the dragons in the name of Jesus to go away, and they went off, harming no one.
Then the apostle preached a wondrous sermon to the people concerning the earthly paradise. He said that it was higher than all mountains and near to Heaven; no thorns or brambles grew therein, nor did the lilies and the roses wittier; there was no old age, all men remaining ever young; there the angels made sweet music, and the birds came at one's call. He said that man had been driven out of the earthly paradise, but that by the birth of Christ all were called again to the heavenly Paradise.
As he spoke these things to the people, a loud cry of mourning broke out for the king's son, who had died. When the sorcerers were unable to raise him to life, they persuaded the king that his son had been taken up into the company of the gods, and that he should build a temple and make an image in his honour. But the aforementioned eunuch caused the magicians to be taken prisoners, and summoned the apostle, who prayed over the youth and restored him to life. At this the king, whose name was Egippus, sent heralds throughout his realm, proclaiming: 'Come and see God hiding in the form of a man!' They came therefore with golden crowns and divers kinds of victims, wishing to sacrifice to him. But Matthew forbade them, saying: 'Men, what do ye? I am not a god, but the servant of Jesus Christ!' At his command they then used their offerings of gold and silver to build a great church, which they erected within thirty days; and in this church the apostle presided for three and thirty years, and converted all of Egypt to the faith; and King Egippus was baptized with his wife and all the people. The apostle also dedicated the king's daughter Ephigenia to God, and set her over more than two hundred virgins.
Some time later Hirtacus succeeded the king, and, lusting after the virgin Ephigenia, promised the apostle the half of his kingdom if he would prevail upon her to become his wife. The apostle answered that, following the usage of his predecessor, he should come to the church on the following Sunday, and there, in the presence of Ephigenia and the other virgins, hear how good was godly matrimony. Thither the king hastened with joy, thinking that the apostle meant to urge Ephigenia to marry. Matthew therefore preached for a long time to the virgins and the assembled populace concerning the good of matrimony; wherefore he was much praised by the king, Then, commanding silence, the apostle continued: Since marriage is a good thing, ve who are present well know that if a servant dared to molest the king's spouse, he would deserve not only the king's displeasure, but death besides; and this not because he wished to take a wife, but because he violated the king's marriage by carrying off his wife. And thou, 0 king, who knowest that Ephigenia is espoused to the eternal King, how canst thou purloin the spouse of One mightier than thou, and take her to wife?'
When he heard these words, the king was consumed with rage, and went out of the church, while the apostle, intrepid and unmoved, exhorted all to patience and constancy, and blessed Ephigenia and the other virgins, who had prostrated themselves in his feet. After the Mass the king sent a swordsman, who came behind Matthew as he stood at the altar with his hands raised to Heaven in prayer, drove his sword into his back, and so consummated the apostle's martyrdom.
When the populace heard these tidings, they ran to the king's palace to set it afire, but were restrained by the priests and deacons and made gladsome celebration for the saint's martyrdom. Meanwhile the king could not bend Ephigenia to his will, either by matrons whom he despatched to her, or by the artifices of the magicians. He therefore heaped up a great fire about her house in order to destroy her and the other virgins; but the apostle appeared to them, and warded the flames from the house, and it swept the royal palace and burned it to the ground, the king and his only son barely escaping. Thereupon the king's son was seized by the Devil, and sped to the apostle's tomb, loudly proclaiming his father's sins; while the infamous father was stricken with an incurable leprosy, and killed himself with his own sword.
The people then chose Ephigenia's brother, who had been baptized by the apostle, to be their king. He reigned for seventy years, and then gave his throne to his son. He enhanced the Christian worship lavishly, and filled the whole province of Egypt with the churches of Christ. As for Zaroes and Arphaxat, they fled to Persia the very day that Matthew raised the king's son to life, but there Simon and Jude vanquished them.
We may note that in Saint Matthew four things arc worthy of consideration. The first is his swiftness to obey; for as soon as Christ called him, he quit his custom-house, leaving his tax accounts incomplete without fear of his masters, and devoted himself completely to Christ. This ready obedience has been a source of error to some, as Jerome recounts in his commentary on that place of the Gospel: 'Porphyry and the Emperor Julian find proof therein either of the ignorance of a lying chronicler, or of the witlessness of them that so promptly followed the Saviour, as if they went off after the first man who called them, without any reason whatsoever. But there is no doubt that the apostles, before they believed in Him, had seen the many signs of His power which went before Him. And of a surety, the very splendour and majesty of His hidden godhead, which shone even in His human countenanec, were enough to draw them the first time they looked upon him. For if a magnet has power to attract rings and bits of iron, how much the more can the Lord of all creation draw to Himself those whom He will!' Thus Jerome.
The second virtue is his bounty or generosity, whereby he made Him a great feast in his house. The feast was great, not so much because of the sumptuous arrangements, as for the following reasons: first, Matthew's will and intention, for he received the Lord with great love and desire; second, the mystery involved, which is explained in the Gloss on Saint Luke: 'He who receives Christ into his inward abode, is filled with the sweetness of abounding delights; third, Christ's teachings on that occasion, such as: 'I will have mercy and not Sacrifice,' and 'they that are whole need not the physician, but they that are sick'; fourth, the guests who were invited namely Christ and His disciples.
The third virtue is his humility, which is manifested in a twofold way. Firstly, Matthew himself avows that he was a publican. The other evangelists, as the Gloss says, did not put down the common name, because of the reverence and honor due to an evangelist; but he himself, since the just man is the first to accuse himself, calls himself Matthew and a publican., in order to show that no one who is converted should mistrust his salvation, when a publican could suddenly become an apostle and an evangelist. Secondly, he bore injuries patiently. For when the Pharisees murmured because Christ went down to a sinful man, he could rightly have answered them: 'You rather are miserable and sinful men, who, deeming yourselves just, flee the physician; whereas I can no longer be called a sinner, who take refuge with the physician of salvation, and hide not my wounds from Him!'
Lastly, we may note the great honor in which his Gospel is held in the Church, for it is read more often than the other Gospels, just as the Psalms of David and the Epistles of Saint Paul are recited more frequently than the other sacred writings. The reason for this is as follows. Saint James says that there arc three kinds of sin, namely pride, lust, and avarice. Saul, who had his name from the proud King Saul, committed the sin of pride, when he persecuted the Church of God beyond measure. David committed the sin of lust, when he not only fell into adultery, but on account of his adultery took the life of his most faithful soldier Urias. Matthew committed the sin of avarice, by his panting Lyreed for filthy lucre; for he was a keeper of the customs. The custom-house, or teloneum, as Isidore says, is a place at a seaport, where ships and seamen pay tolls on their goods; which tolls, according to Bede, are called telos in Greek, and vectigal in Latin. These three men, therefore, were sinners. Yet their repentance was so pleasing to the Lord that not only did He forgive them, but also heaped His gifts upon them in greater abundance. Of the most cruel persecutor He made a faithful preacher, of the adulterer and murderer He made a prophet and a psalmist, of the miser and money-seeker. He made an apostle and an evangelist. Therefore the words of these three are read to us more frequently, so that none that wishes to be converted may despair of pardon, when grace wrought such wonders in such great sinners.
The Gospel which Matthew wrote with his own hand was covered with the bones of Saint Barnabas, in the year of the Lord 500. Saint Barnabas ever carried this Gospel with him, and placed it upon the heads of the sick; and all were cured, by the faith of Barnabas and by the merits of Matthew.
1. From: The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, trans. and adapted by Ryan, Granger and Helmut Ripperger. (Arno Press: Longmans, Green & Co) 1941. pp. 561-566.