The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1598–1600
Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi),
Oil on canvas; 322 x 340 cm
Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
Have you ever been called by God? That may seem like an outrageous question to most of us. Who, me? Called by God? How could that be? How would we even know if we were called? Most of us probably don’t hear a voice from heaven as Jesus did at his baptism, or as Samuel did in his sleep; if we did we might think something was seriously amiss and seek help and medication asap!
However, our calling can happen in far more prosaic ways. We see an example of this unexpected occurrence in The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio, the bad boy of Baroque art. Though prodigiously talented, Caravaggio (1571-1610) was a brawler and a murderer who died alone while on the run from the law. He was nearly forgotten until the twentieth century, when his genius and influence on the artists of his day was recognized. His use of extreme realism and chiaroscuro, or the contrast between light and dark, give his paintings an immediacy and drama that are instantly recognizable. He also had many imitators, known as the Caravaggisti.
As Jesus passed by,
he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post.
He said to him, “Follow me.”
And he got up and followed him.
While he was at table in his house,
many tax collectors and sinners came
and sat with Jesus and his disciples.
The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples,
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
He heard this and said,
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
Go and learn the meaning of the words,
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
In Caravaggio’s work, we see a dingy room with light streaming in from a high window outside the picture frame, illuminating the figures at the table. Jesus stands at the far right with Peter, both of them barefoot. The outstretched hand of Jesus and the diagonal edge of the ray of light both point to the bearded man in the black hat, Levi/Matthew, who points at himself as if to say, “Who, me?”
The darkness and grime of the room signal to us the nefarious activity taking place there. The well-dressed men at the table, presumably tax collectors like Matthew, are counting their money and the two figures at left are totally absorbed in their ill-gotten gains. Tax collectors were hated because they extorted even more than the myriad of Roman taxes from the people, and as the passage indicates, because of this they were classed with sinners.
It can be no accident that the pointing hand of Jesus is directly beneath the cross in the window, nor that his hand is in the same languid pose as that of Adam in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The theological symbolism here is that Jesus is the new Adam, sent to call all men from the death brought about by Adam’s sin, to salvation by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
The passage in Mark continues with the Pharisees complaining that Jesus eats with these sinners and tax collectors. Many people were drawn to Jesus, including the unlovable and the unloved, the outcasts and the despised, the criminals and the poor. Rather than adhering to orthodox rules of purity, Jesus broke bread with them, spoke with them, and touched them, which shocked the Pharisees. Jesus’ reply, that he comes for the sick and the sinner, is spoken to all of us, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are all called to be transformed. Where are you called? If a barefoot man in a bar suddenly points at you and says to follow him, how would you respond? It is so easy for us to miss the summons to God’s will for our lives.
Where is your call? Jesus is saying to you, “Follow me.”