This question causes brave men to quake! The specter of the IRS looms over us each year, epsecially as the deadline approaches in April, or the extension deadline in October. In spite of all the attempts to make the IRS “people friendly,” the commercials advertising businesses which will “help you deal with the IRS if you have tax problems” speak loudly of our fear and hatred of the tax collectors.

Believe it or not, it was even worse in ancient Palestine. Tax collectors, then as now, were governmental officials. Except then the government was the occupying foreign might of pagan Rome. The tax collectors were seen as traitors and agents of the Gentiles who not only sent money to a foreign governemnt, but also exploited their own people for personal gain.

Then, one day, there was an encounter–a young prophet from Galiliee was passing by the tax office and said three simple words to the man sitting there: Come, follow me. Suddenly everything was different; the world had changed. There was a simultaneous implosion and explosion in Matthew’s world. He left the money sitting where it was, got up and followed. Now he worked for a different power, for the Kingdom of God.

The Christmas Fast gets on its way with the celebration of the memory of this tax collector turned disciple, St. Matthew. We celebrate today the good news of the Fast–Yes, repentance is possible, even if you are the lowest of the low, even for a hated tax collector! No matter where you are in life, you can turn yourself around with Christ; you can get up and follow.

The Holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew

As with all the disciples, the fire of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost sent Matthew out to the whole world to preach the Gospel. Tradition tells us that he went as far as Parthia (moder Iran). One tradition also tells us that he ended his days in Ethiopia. There he was placed head-first into a fire; miraculously the fire was extinguished, but Matthew then gave up his spirit to his Master.

The beautiful hymns for St. Matthew play on the image of the fire of his martyrdom, the fire of the Holy Spirit which he received at Pentecost, and the fire of zeal for Christ that he continues even till today to communicate through his Gospel.

One of the hymns from Vespers illustrates this comparison:

With your words of ire, you consumed all error, O Apostle worthy of all praise, all-wise Matthew, who received the visit of the Paraclete when He illumined your whole being. Thus you filled with wonder the spirits of those who heard you speak when you announced to the people the magnificence of the Almighty One. Your message, inspired by God, has gone out through all the world. Pray to Him to save and enlighen our souls.

The blaze of this divine fire which animated and filled this ex-tax collector should also blaze in our own souls. Fire warms, but it also consumes. The fire contained in the Gospel does both. It warms us with the presence of the Comforter, but as the Spirit of Truth, the same fire consumes our sins, our pride, our self-absorption. But there can be no fire to animate and warm us if it is never unleashed, if we never open the Gospel to immerse ourselves into the flame! Let us pray to the holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew that he will inspire us and ingite in us that same fire of zeal for his Master!