St. Matthew, Extortionist[1st century] FEAST DAY: September 21
No one likes taxes. But antitax animosity was especially intense in ancient Israel during the first century of the Christian era. In the gospels tax collectors (also known as publicans) are frequently mentioned in the same breath as harlots and sinners.
If tax collectors had a lousy reputation two thousand years ago, they deserved it. Under the Romans, the governor of each province was responsible for collecting the tax on land. Other taxes--on individuals, on personal property, on imports and exports--were subcontracted to private individuals who paid the Romans a fee in advance for the right to collect whatever Rome had levied on the conquered nations of its empire. These freelance tax collectors profited from this transaction by overcharging and extorting as much as they could get out of the taxpayers. The Romans didn't care--as long as they got the full balance of what was due. The Jews, on the other hand, cared quite a lot. In their eyes Jewish tax collectors were shameless crooks who committed the twofold crime of collaborating with heathens and preying upon their own people. Little wonder that the Jews of Christ's day regarded tax collectors with loathing.
Matthew, also called Levi in the gospels of St. Mark and St. Luke, was a tax collector at Capernaum, a Roman garrison town. He was sitting at his table in the customs house, shaking down his neighbors, when Jesus Christ walked by. Our Lord had just healed a paralyzed man; now he was about to reconcile a sinner. "Follow me," Christ said. To the surprise of the Roman guards, the clerks, and the taxpayers, Matthew got up, left the money where it lay on the table, turned his back on a life of government-sanctioned larceny, and joined the handful of men we know as the twelve apostles.
St. Luke's gospel tells us that Matthew celebrated his conversion by throwing an elaborate feast for Christ, the apostles, and a host of other guests. When the Pharisees complained that Jesus had no business dining with a notorious tax collector, Christ answered, "I came not to call the just, but sinners."
This is the only scene in the New Testament in which Matthew takes the spotlight.
From a very early date Christians attributed one of the gospels to St. Matthew. Although it comes first in the New Testament, in all probability St. Mark's is the oldest gospel, which almost certainly served as a source for Matthew. Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience; in his gospel he quotes frequently from the Hebrew scriptures to emphasize that Christ is the fulfillment of the prophecies. We owe to Matthew such unique features as St. Joseph's plan to divorce the Blessed Virgin Mary, the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem, King Herod's slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the Holy Family's flight into Egypt, a great part of the Sermon on the Mount, the parable of the sower, the metaphor of the sheep and the goats at the Last Judgment, the suicide of Judas, and the guards at Christ's tomb.
There is no reliable record of what Matthew did after the first Pentecost, when the apostles scattered to preach the gospel. He may have gone to Ethiopia, or to the region near the Caspian Sea--those two destinations appear most often in the old sources. There is even a dubious claim that St. Matthew went to Ireland. The truth is St. Matthew's later life is a mystery. Tradition says that he died a martyr, cut down with a sword as he said Mass. But we aren't even sure about that.
St. Dismas, Thief[Died c. 30] FEAST DAY: March 25
Christ was crucified between two thieves--all four gospels bear witness to this. But St. Luke's gospel fleshes out the scene a bit, giving "the Good Thief," the man tradition names Dismas, a few lines of dialogue.
The scene opens with the three men hanging on their crosses. "The Bad Thief," the man tradition names Gestas, reviles Jesus, saying, "If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us." That's when Dismas speaks up. "Neither dost thou fear God, seeing thou art under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done no evil."
Then, addressing Christ, the dying Dismas says, "Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom."
Jesus replies, "Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise."
The scene is brief and poignant, and although the Good Thief doesn't say much, it is interesting to note that he has more lines than other, infinitely more popular New Testament saints. St. Jude, the enormously popular patron saint of impossible causes, is on record as speaking only once and very briefly in the gospels. Even stranger is the case of St. Joseph, Christ's foster father and the Blessed Virgin Mary's husband, who in the entire New Testament never says a single word.
From a very early date Christians found these silences and gaps in the stories of such significant players frustrating. An entire body of literature sprang up to answer the inevitable question "And then what happened?" The term for these narratives is apocrypha. They are writings that, in spite of their popularity with the early Christians, did not make it into the canon, the official list, of the books of the New Testament. Most of these works were omitted because they taught unorthodox doctrine (the so-called Gnostic gospels fall into this category). Other apocryphal works may have been perfectly orthodox in their understanding of the nature of Christ and his mission in the world but passed along stories about Mary's and Joseph's family backgrounds and the infancy and childhood of Christ that the early Church knew to be untrue or could not substantiate. The stories, or legends if you prefer, of St. Dismas are not theologically suspect, but it is certainly impossible at this point to say what, if anything, in these stories actually happened.
The earliest apocryphal work to attempt to flesh out the story of the Holy Family and St. Dismas is The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Savior
, dating from around 600. The book covers Mary and Joseph's journey into Egypt with the Christ Child to escape Judea's murderous King Herod, their return home to Nazareth a few years later, and Jesus' early childhood.
As Mary and Joseph wander through Egypt, looking for a safe place to call home, the local people warn them about a certain stretch of desert that is teeming with robbers. Hoping to pass without being detected, Mary and Joseph decide to travel by night. As they make their way through this dangerous territory, they see two highwaymen blocking the road ahead of them. Worse still, they realize that they have stumbled right into a robbers' camp: all around them dozens of cutthroats lie sleeping. The robbers watching the road are Dismas and Gestas.
Gestas is ready to get down to business and take anything of value the Holy Family has on them, but Dismas intervenes. "Let these persons go freely," Dismas says, "so that our comrades may not see them." It's a strange request from a hardened criminal, and Gestas dismisses it out of hand.
So Dismas makes his request more attractive. "Take to thyself these forty drachmas from me," Dismas says. Then he sweetens the deal by taking off his valuable belt and promising that to Gestas, too. The drachmas and the belt are an offer Gestas can't refuse, so he stands aside and lets the Holy Family go, free and unmolested.
Before they continue on their way, Mary prophesies to Dismas, "The Lord God will sustain thee by his right hand, and will grant thee remission of thy sins." But the Christ Child makes an even greater prophecy. "Thirty years hence, O my mother," he says, "these two robbers will be raised upon the cross along with me, Dismas on my right hand, and Gestas on my left: and after that day, Dismas shall go before me into paradise."
But this isn't the only ancient work to fill out the Dismas story. The Gospel of Nicodemus
, a fourth-century apocryphal work, picks up Dismas's story where St. Luke's gospel leaves off. The Gospel of Nicodemus
takes us down to the underworld during the three dark days Christ lay dead in his tomb.
According to Catholic theology, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in Eden, the gates of Heaven were shut and would not be reopened until the Savior died and rose from the dead. During those long centuries the souls of the righteous went to Limbo, a level of Hell where they were spared the sufferings of the damned but were denied the beatific vision of God. When Christ descended into Hell, as the Apostles' Creed says, he liberated the souls of the just and led them to Heaven. In the Middle Ages this moment in the history of mankind's salvation was known as the Harrowing of Hell; it was a popular subject for mystery plays, with Christ entering like an all-powerful warlord ready to besiege a city. In spite of all the demons arrayed against him, Christ batters down the heavily fortified gates of Hell and releases the souls held captive there by the devil.
In The Gospel of Nicodemus
, as the holy men and women who lived and died before the coming of Christ gather together for their long-awaited journey to Paradise, Enoch and Elijah see a man coming toward them dressed in vile clothes with the sign of the cross on his shoulders.
"Who art thou?" they ask, "for thine appearance is as of a robber; and wherefore is it that thou bearest a sign upon thy shoulders?"
The stranger is Dismas, of course, and he answers, "I was a robber, doing all manner of evil upon the earth. [But] I beheld the wonders in the creation which came to pass through the cross of Jesus when he was crucified, and I believed that he was the maker of all creatures and the almighty king, and I besought him, saying, 'Remember me, Lord, when thou comest into thy kingdom.' And forthwith he received my prayer, and said unto me, 'Verily I say unto thee, this day shalt thou be with me in paradise.' And he gave me the sign of the cross, saying: 'Bear this and go unto paradise.' "
At some point--when is hard to pinpoint--interest in St. Dismas segued into devotion. He became the patron saint of thieves specifically and criminals in general. The saint received a bit more attention in 1961 with the release of the movie The Hoodlum Priest
, starring Don Murray as the tough-guy Jesuit Father Charles Dismas Clark, who served as a kind of missionary to street gangs and convicts. Under the patronage of St. Dismas, Catholic chaplains operate a ministry to incarcerated men and women.
As is often the case, we can see the depth of devotion to St. Dismas through the life of another saint. Father Emil Kapaun of Pilsen, Kansas, who is being promoted for sainthood, was a military chaplain during the Korean War. In November 1950 the North Koreans captured him and 1,200 American fighting men. The American POWs got so little food they were on the verge of starvation, so every night Father Kapaun crept out of the barracks to steal corn, millet, and soybeans from the guards' storehouse. Before Father Kapaun went out on his "foraging" forays, he prayed to St. Dismas, the Good Thief.
St. Callixtus, Embezzler
[Died 222] FEAST DAY: October 14
A remarkable number of contemporary sources tell the story of St. Callixtus, including the work of the second-century Christian historian Julius Africanus, compiler of the first Christian chronology. Most of the details of Callixtus's disorderly life, however, come from his two bitterest enemies, the Christian theologian and controversialist Tertullian and the antipope Hippolytus. They have left us a scrupulously detailed record of every one of Callixtus's transgressions. The only aspect of his life that Tertullian and Hippolytus shied away from was his conversion.
Around the year 190 in Rome a Christian named Carpophorus set up a bank for his fellow Christians, particularly widows, who needed a safe place to keep their limited funds. Carpophorus had a Christian slave named Callixtus who had experience managing money, so he entrusted the administration of the bank to him. The man couldn't have made a worse choice.
Callixtus's investment decisions were disastrous. Worse still, he had a habit of helping himself to the bank's funds. In short order all the money was gone. Roman Christians who thought they were financially secure suddenly found themselves destitute. As for Callixtus, he ran to the nearest harbor, where he booked passage on the first ship heading out to sea. The destination didn't matter, so long as the ship took him far from his irate master and the Christians he had bankrupted.
But Carpophorus went after his slave. He caught up with Callixtus at the town of Portus, where the runaway slave was aboard a ship anchored in the middle of the harbor, anxiously awaiting a favorable wind. Carpophorus hired a boatman to ferry him out to the vessel. As the little boat drew close, Callixtus recognized the man aboard as his master. In desperation he dove into the sea and tried to swim to safety. By now Carpophorus's boat was within earshot of the ship. He shouted to the sailors not to let Callixtus get away. The crew leapt into their own small boats, fished Callixtus out of the water, and handed him over to Carpophorus.
Under Roman law masters could do whatever they liked with their slaves. Back in Rome Carpophorus sentenced Callixtus to hard labor. The embezzling slave was chained to a gristmill, where he turned the massive stone wheel day after day. It was brutal, exhausting, mind-numbing work. Callixtus, knowing that his master would never forgive him, expected to turn the wheel until he dropped dead in his tracks.
Then rescue came from an unexpected quarter. The ruined depositors from Carpophorus's bank begged him to release Callixtus, arguing that the slave might be persuaded to recover at least some of the money he had squandered. The pleas of his desperate friends touched the heart of Carpophorus; he agreed to free his slave with the understanding that Callixtus would try to regain at least some of the money he had lost.
Callixtus was barely out of his chains when he got into fresh trouble. On Saturday morning he barged into Rome's synagogue, disrupted the Sabbath service, and demanded money from the Jewish congregation. He claimed he was trying get back the funds he had invested with Jewish financiers. This may have been true, but Callixtus should have known better than to disturb religious people at their prayers in order to collect a debt. The brawl that erupted in the synagogue ended with members of the congregation dragging Callixtus into the courtroom of Fuscianus, the prefect of the city.
The Jews charged Callixtus with disturbing the peace and desecrating a holy place. For good measure, they said they suspected that Callixtus was a member of that outlawed sect known as Christians. By now Carpophorus was in the courtroom, too, and he swore that his slave was no Christian. Technically, of course, Carpophorus was lying since Callixtus had been baptized. But in terms of Callixtus's conduct, no one could describe it as Christlike.
Excerpted from Saints Behaving Badly by Thomas J. Craughwell. Copyright © 2006 by Thomas J. Craughwell. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Religion, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.