Adjacent to the main altar in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, is the Contarelli Chapel in which hang three paintings by the famed artist Caravaggio (Michelangel Merisi), depicting scenes from the life of the apostle Matthew: his calling, his inspiration and his martyrdom. The French cardinal Mathieu Cointrel, who died in 1585, had left money in his will for the decoration of this chapel, and even left detailed descriptions of how the paintings were to be created.
For "The Calling of St. Matthew," the evangelist was meant to be shown at a desk with books and different objects, collecting a sum of money from someone, when the Lord passes and simply says, "Follow me". Caravaggio's wonderful interpretation of that simple description brings thousands of visiting tourists to the chapel each year. And interestingly enough, he was not even the Cardinal's "artist-of-choice" to do the job.
Today's Gospel passage recounting Matthew's call to discipleship is quite brief: "...he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, 'Follow me.' And he got up and followed him." The artist's vision of this scene however has a lot more going on within it.
Caravaggio represents the event as a nearly silent, dramatic narrative. The tax-gatherer is seated at a table with his four assistants, counting the day's proceeds. We see a young man, his head bowed, paying a sum of money while the cashier seems to be looking over his shoulder making sure that the amount is correct. Matthew is next to him, a coin in his hat to show his profession. Two young guards sit as protection. They are all dressed in the contemporary clothing of Caravaggio.
Into this scene wanders two persons, Jesus accompanied by Peter, both in timeless, biblical dress. Christ, His eyes veiled, with His halo showing only the hint of divinity, stretches out his hand as if pointing to Matthew. Surprised by the intrusion, Matthew draws back and gestures toward himself with his left hand as if to say, "Who, me?" - his right hand still remaining on the coin that he had been counting before Christ's entrance. And Peter, who almost blocks the Lord from our view, seems to be saying: "Oh no, Lord, not him!"
The dramatic point of the painting is that for this moment, no one does anything. Jesus' appearance is so unexpected and His gesture so powerful, it seems to suspend action for one shocked instant, before reaction can take place. In another second, Matthew will rise up and follow - in fact, Christ's feet are already turned as if to leave the room. The particular power of the painting lies in this moment. It portrays the moment of decision, the moment of choice, the moment of acceptance or rejection.
But there is more to the story. Jesus' choice of company stands in deliberate violation of the accepted social norms of his day. He not only eats with tax collectors, but also stresses that it is the sinners, not the righteous, whom he has "come to call." Jesus is not simply interested in healing this cast of strange characters but has actually chosen these same people as his partners in mission. It's no wonder the Pharisees reacted the way they did.
I think it is a peril of modern day Christianity to think that we are free of the pitfalls of the Pharisees depicted in today's reading. We all have lines of safety that we create for ourselves, beyond which we cannot imagine going. The mercy Jesus sends the Pharisees off to learn is a virtue that - like Caravaggio's Jesus - should span the limits of time - even to us, if we will let it - beyond that which offends and even angers us.
God's love and faithfulness really have no limits. We see this again and again in today's scriptures. God says to Israel, and Jesus, carefully quoting Hosea so everyone will get the point, says the same thing to us, "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice." He desires of us what He reveals to us. He wants us to be like Himself, to act as He does. And He wants us to treat one another, even - and maybe especially - the worst of one another, the way He treats us.
The "tax collectors and sinners" were not secretly nice people with hearts of gold who were misunderstood victims of an uncaring society. These were people who intentionally chose to crawl just about as low as they could get - and for the sake of nothing but their own profit. But it is God's nature, first and foremost, to treat us the way Hosea treated his unfaithful wife, the way Jesus treated the tax collectors and sinners.
Deserving God's love has nothing to do with this; bringing out the best in other people has nothing to do with this; being fair has nothing to do with this, winning friends and influencing people has nothing to do with this. None of that matters. What matters is acting as God acts - because He wants us to, and because we decide to do so.
God beckons us in the most unusual and exciting ways. Slow to anger and quite creative, He challenges us to pay attention to the small things in life, and to follow Him. Whenever He calls us to serve, we are transformed by an experience that strengthens our faith and conviction in the love of Christ. It is especially in these times that we can clearly see what Christ calls us to do - love unconditionally.
Jesus points to Matthew and invites him to follow and become a student of life and love. By society's standards, Matthew was a risky choice. But we can believe that Matthew was passionate about life, and that God looked beyond his faults and used his passion and availability to do great things.
Each of us has been called to witness to Christ's call to Life. Each of us has been sent to feed others - to nourish and be nourished through community. We are each challenged to proclaim to the world that our God is a God who takes life with absolute seriousness, a God who enters fully into suffering and death and does not allow it to be the final victory. We do this just by living our daily lives as best we can: by raising our children, by teaching, listening, comforting and encouraging others, guiding and defending life.
Today's Gospel is a lesson for each of us, struggling with our own very personal efforts to love Jesus and to be faithful to Him. We share the same character flaws common to each of the first disciples. We, too, have our own ideas and biases as to what makes a "good and faithful" follower; we, too, are so often slow to understand, eager to deny, strong on words and weak on action, afraid to pay the price of discipleship, but always hanging in, and always knowing that Jesus will walk with us, forgive us, heal us, and wait patiently for us to mature in our faith and our love - waiting for us to reach the point when we can say with Matthew: "Lord, who me?" And Jesus will smile back at us, and say, "Follow me."
And we will follow. And the Risen Lord will be very much with us, to help us understand, to supply answers to our deepest questions and fears, and to reveal Himself again to us in the Breaking of the Bread.