We know that Matthew was a tax collector, a “publican.” He was, it would seem, quite well-to-do and popular among the people of Capernaum, where, Luke tells us, he had many friends (Luke 5:29). This was all the more significant in view of the fact that the Jews had a very low opinion of tax collectors in general; they regarded them as extortionists, in addition to being collaborators with the Roman regime.
Matthew was a warm-hearted person; he responded quickly and generously when Jesus called him the day he passed by his office (Mark 9:9). He immediately left everything and followed him. He was later chosen to become one of the Twelve (Mark 10:14), and to the very end of his life he was a faithful witness to the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord.
According to the Fathers of the Church, the Gospel according to Matthew was written in Palestine, almost certainly in Aramaic, and was addressed mainly to Jews living in that region. It is thought that it was first written around the year 50, but that this version disappeared soon after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. Immediately after this a Greek translation of Matthew–the one we now possess–began to be used; this is regarded by the Church as canonical, authentic, and substantially the same as the original Aramaic.
Matthew, under God’s inspiration, set out to show that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah foretold by the prophets, the Son of God. This is why his Gospel has been called “the Gospel of the fulfillment.” It stresses all the prophecies of the Old Testament which announce the coming of the Messiah: He is of the house of David (1:6); he is born of Mary, a virgin, to fulfill what Isaiah foretold (1:22-23); and now, in the fullness of time, he makes his appearance, preaching “the Gospel of the Kingdom.”
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us about this kingdom, promulgating the beatitudes (5:3-11), which give us a whole program for Christian living. No one can enter the kingdom without first selling what he has and buying this precious treasure, a hidden treasure (13:44) which, because it is as small as a mustard seed (13:31), a person really has to seek out: Despite its inherent strength and power it will grow to fill the whole world—one can possess it only through detachment from material things.
Jesus wants those who follow him to be poor and to trust in providence; in other words, no Christian should become so taken up with material things that he cuts himself off from God. Possessions go against God if a person turns them into an absolute value and makes them (whether consciously or not) his god, his only goal in life. The Lord wants us to use material resources as means to an end; we should therefore be able to do without them when they in any way prevent us from doing his will. (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 42).
Because this kingdom should be constantly on the increase, we should pray for it with faith and hope, using the best prayer of all, the Our Father (6:9-13). In fact, if it is to fully influence our lives we need to be permanently united to the successor of Peter, whom Jesus appointed as administrator of the treasures of the kingdom of heaven, conferring on him the fullness of the primacy, with responsibility for teaching and governing the whole Church (16:18-19).
Moreover, this kingdom founded by Jesus Christ on Earth, his Church, will last until the end of time. Jesus himself, after his Resurrection, promised that this would happen: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (28:19-20).
In this passage, which we find also in Mark 16:16, it is expressly stated that the apostles (the Church) receive from Jesus the same mission as he received from his Father–to save all men through preaching and the ministry of the sacraments.
First among these is baptism, which is absolutely necessary for salvation. However, if someone is physically unable to receive baptism, then its place may be taken by baptism of desire, in the case of adults, and also by martyrdom (which is called baptism of blood), should this extreme situation arise.
Thus Jesus confers on his disciples and on those who succeed them in the apostolic ministry the power to baptize in the name of the Blessed Trinity and to admit into the bosom of the Church those who have faith. But to do this they must first proclaim the gospel to all the nations, teaching them to practice, by word and example, the faith they have received.
The Second Vatican Council confirmed this in these words: “And so the apostolic teaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by a continuous succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore, the apostles, handing on what they themselves received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15) and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (cf. Jude 3). Now what was handed on by the apostles includes everything which contributes to the holiness of life and the increase of faith of the people of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life, and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.”
Jesus also promises that he will stay with his Church forever. We rely on this assurance. Although the Church is a fragile vessel which can feel threatened by the waves of atheism and materialism which seek to wreck it, it will always survive and develop: Our Lord will say to us what he said that day on the lake to his disciples: “Take heart, it is I; have no fear” (14:27), referring to that sort of fear the disciples experienced even when they saw Jesus being glorified at the transfiguration (17:6), the same fear they felt in Gethsemani, which caused them all to flee and abandon him (25:56). This fear is the darker side of their behavior prior to Pentecost, yet they later became witnesses to the life and Resurrection of Jesus, no longer afraid to preach in his name.
There is one important detail which Matthew does not fail to observe: “The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (17:51). This was the curtain separating the sanctuary from the Holy of Holies (cf. Ex. 26:31); on Jesus’ death it was torn, indicating (this has been the traditional interpretation of the Church) that the old Mosaic cult had come to an end and a new era had begun, that of the New Covenant, sealed with the blood of the Son of God. Through this New Covenant man can be born again to a new life, leaving behind fear and any kind of pessimism, for death has been overcome by Life.