The Mischievous Smile of St. Matthew

A reflection on St. Matthew the Apostle inspired by the oil painting of Fr. George Leonard Shultz (1896 – 1971). This same reflection was published in the Times-Standard on October 3, 2020: “The Mischievous Smile of St. Matthew”

On September 21, Episcopalians celebrate the feast of St. Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist who is traditionally considered the author of the first Gospel in the New Testament canon. As an evangelist, he is associated with the symbol of the Angel or Winged Man since his Gospel emphasizes the humanity of Christ, or more specifically the Jewish humanity of the Rabbi Jesus. As an apostle, he is sometimes associated with the symbol of a battle axe because, according to one tradition, he was beheaded with an axe in Ethiopia. However, since the details of his martyrdom are vague, he is more often associated with the symbol of a purse, which represents the infamous occupation he held before becoming one of Jesus’s disciples: a tax collector. In fact, it was while working as a tax collector for Rome that Matthew was first approached by Jesus, who simply said to him, “Follow me” (Matthew 9:9).            

Episcopal priest and artist George Shultz (1896-1971) imagined Matthew as a wealthy man since tax collectors would often benefit personally by charging taxpayers more than the empire demanded. In Fr. Shultz’s portrait of the apostle, we see a taxpayer at a Roman tollbooth raising his arm in disgust at the tax collector’s exorbitant rate. It is important to note that this event occurs in the distant background of the portrait thus demonstrating that such behavior is in Matthew’s past. In contrast, the foreground depicts the apostle holding an empty purse upside down, indicating that he has now let go of selfish pursuit for monetary gain.

The artist describes Matthew as “happy,” but his smile is subtle and even slightly seditious, having left his career as an imperial officer to follow someone whose ministry would threaten and ultimately topple the empire. Matthew’s happiness runs deeper still as he learns to let go of wealth’s false security and embrace his true identity as a royal priest. Herbert Lockyer (whose writings inspired Fr. Shultz) suggests that Matthew was from the Jewish priestly tribe of Levi since the Gospels of Mark and Luke both refer to him as “Levi” (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27). In Jesus’s call to “Follow me,” Matthew hears the voice of his ancestors calling him to let go of his cupidity and to invest in the treasury of wisdom offered by his Jewish tradition and rabbi. In following Jesus, he discovers the true gold of Christ’s teachings, which he then shares with the world through his compelling Gospel. In this way, he lives up to his name “Matthew,” which means “Gift of God.”  

In Fr. Shultz’s clever portrayal of St. Matthew, I see an invitation for us to ask ourselves: “Of what are we being called to let go? What purses in our lives need to be emptied?” And in that ever so subtle and mischievous smile of the saint, I see a call for us to play our part in subverting systems of injustice, investing in treasuries of wisdom, and discovering our identity as a ‘Gift of God’ for the world.

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