September 21st, Feast of St. Matthew
The birthday of St. Matthew, apostle and evangelist, who suffered martyrdom in Ethiopia while engaged in preaching. The Gospel written by him in Hebrew was found by his own revelation during the time of Emperor Zeno, together with the relics of the blessed apostle Barnabas. (From the Roman Martyrology)
Caravaggio’s masterpiece depicts the calling of St. Matthew, who was once a tax-collector but became both an apostle and evangelist. The calling of Matthew is most clearly described in Matthew 9:9ff. However, it is interesting to note that both Luke and Mark seem to describe the same scene, only they give a different name for the publican, calling him Levi.
Thus, we are led to consider why it was that Luke and Mark called Matthew “Levi”, and why Matthew called himself by his own proper name. Moreover, we must consider the meaning of these two names, and what mystery is hidden behind the conversion of the son of Alpheus (not of the Alpheus, called Cleopas, father of James and Jude; but the son of a different Alpheus).
Levi is Matthew and Matthew is Levi
While it is true that both Mark and Luke name the publican “Levi”, and Matthew gives his own more common name “Matthew”, we ought to maintain that all refer to the same event and to one single person.
Luke 5:27ff and Mark 2:14ff both give a story so similar to that found in Matthew 9:9ff that it would be quite difficult to think that Matthew and Levi are two different people. The Savior comes and sees the publican, sitting at his table. The Lord calls him and says, Come, Follow me! The publican rises and follows the Lord. The publican shares a feast with Christ and also with others who are public sinners. This meal excites the criticism of certain of the Pharisees.
The only substantial difference in the stories is that Luke and Mark name the publican “Levi”, while Matthew names him “Matthew” – also, Matthew does not explicitly mention at whose house the Lord dines, while Luke and Mark specify that it is Levi’s home.
Why the diversity of naming?
It was not uncommon for individuals in ancient Israel to have two names. “Saul” is called “Paul” and “Thomas” is “Didymus”, for example. Likewise, it was also possible for the same person to have two Hebrew names: “Simon” called “Cephas” and “Joseph - Caiaphas”. So too, Matthew was called both “Levi” and “Matthew”.
It is out of respect for the Apostle and Evangelist that Luke and Mark do not use his more common name when speaking of his past life and conversion from sin. Matthew, however, was not ashamed to admit to his previous sins, and so did not conceal his identity.
St. Jerome says, “The other Evangelists from respect to Matthew have not called him by his common name, but say here, Levi, for he had both names. Matthew himself, according to what Solomon says, The righteous man accuses himself, calls himself both Matthew and Publican, to show the readers that none need despair of salvation who turn to better things, seeing he from a Publican became an Apostle.”
The meaning of Levi and of Matthew
“Matthew” comes from the Hebrew, mattija – meaning, “the gift of the Lord”. “Levi”, on the other hand, is related to the Hebrew word meaning “to take”. Bl. Rabanus Maurus recognizes a mystical signification to these two names:
“Matthew signifies the man intent on temporal gain; Jesus sees him, when He looks on him with the eyes of mercy. For Matthew is interpreted ‘given,’ Levi ‘taken,’ the penitent is taken out of the mass of the perishing, and by God’s grace given to the Church. And Jesus said to him, Follow Me, either by preaching, or by the admonition of Scripture, or by internal illumination.”
St. Matthew, Pray for us!