The Tax-Collector Saint

Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and He said to him, “Follow me.”  And he rose and followed Him. (Matt. 9:9)

Matthew, RusconiToday the Church celebrates the feast of Saint Matthew, a former tax-collector. We know nothing else about his life before he got up and left it all for Christ, but it has nevertheless been enough information for creative artists to work with. If you look closely at this larger-than-life sculpture of Saint Matthew by Camillo Ruscoli (1658-1738), you’ll soon figure out which of Our Lord’s Apostles he is.

The interior of one of Rome’s most important basilicas is lined with rows of monumental statues like this one, portraying the twelve Apostles. As you can see here, Matthew is holding a book, identifying him as one of the Apostles who also wrote part of the New Testament. Both Matthew and John were evangelists; and Peter, James, and Jude wrote epistles that are included in the canon of the Bible, so in theory this particular aspect of the statue could be meant to represent any one of them.

But the clincher is at the saint’s feet. Concentrating on the content of the book he holds, Matthew, Rusconi 2this Apostle stands with one foot perched contemptuously atop a pile of money, spilling out of a sack lying on the ground. This could only be our tax-collector-turned-saint, who without a second thought abandoned his lucrative (and socially disreputable) government career for a life of poverty as a follower of Jesus.

Tradition tells us that Matthew was eventually martyred while preaching the Gospel in Ethiopia. In material terms, it was an ignominious end for someone whose early career-track had apparently been so promising! But of course in the eyes of God, Matthew died a glorious death, laying down his life for his belief in Christ. That bag of gold depicted in Ruscoli’s sculpture truly held no attraction for the Apostle, who had learned to value God Himself above all material goods.