There’s this painting by the artist Caravaggio titled The Calling of St. Matthew. Sometimes his Baroque era paintings seem like the precursor to those classic film noir classics of the late 40’s and early 50’s – dramatic use of shadows and light, the stark and startled expressions on the faces of his subjects, the underlying tension in many of his works…it’s all there. Like the Maltese Falcon circa 1599.
And The Calling of St. Matthew is no different. Jesus’ hand emerging from the shadow of the room, reaching toward a table of surprised faces. Most assume Matthew in the painting is the bearded man…with the classic saintly face pointing toward himself…like “ME???” But, I think it’s someone else…There’s a young man at the table…slumped over a pile of coins, disheveled hair, his eyes are tired, hung-over, maybe even sad. He’s not paying attention to Jesus…his mind somewhere else. And the bearded man who some think is pointing to himself saying, “ME???” I like to think is pointing to this lost, disheveled, greedy soul saying, “HIM???”
Which captures this dynamic in the calling of St. Matthew – this underlying element of “Why in the world would you want him, Jesus? Don’t you know who that is? The tax collector? Really?”
But Jesus didn’t just call him…he did something else. He changed his name…or at least that’s how the tradition understands it. He changed his name. This was Levi the tax collector…and you can imagine the nicknames and slurs….Levi the crook…Levi the swindler…Levi the traitor…the thief…the wolf… His job was to set up a booth on the shores of Galilee and tax the sandals right off the fishermen’s feet. What kind of a man would do that to his own people? Hard working men and women, trying to put food on the table, trying to care for their families. Oh…you can hear the comments…”Levi…we grew up together, played together, our families broke bread together, don’t you remember…?? We sat together in synagogue, made fun of the rabbis when they’re back was turned…how could you Levi?” It took a different level of greed and malice to be that person…to TAKE from your own like that.
Which is why…it was so absurd, so unreasonable, so…risky…to not only call Levi the tax collector…but to change his name to Matthew.
Do you know what Matthew means?? Gift of God
It’s like Jesus was saying… “Your life, thus far, has been an endless hunger for more…more money, more wine, more women. A never satisfying, never fulfilling craving to take. But, now you’re going to follow me and learn to give. Not only that…your whole life is going to be a gift of God.”
Have you ever met someone who God called like that?
I once made a hospital visit to a man, I didn’t know him, he requested a priest- I went.
A shock of unkept white hair, a five day old beard, heavy bags under his eyes, his flesh… as thin as the skin of a grape clung to his bones, dying of cancer. He said…”I was a drunk. A throwaway. Selfish. I hurt people I loved. My daughter still won’t speak to me. But God called me. He told me to learn carpentry and carve altar pieces. So I did.” He pulled put out a photo album – page after page after page of beautifully hand carved, wooden alter pieces – now hung in little churches all over the United States.
I’m calling you, Jesus said. And you’re no longer a tax collector. You. Are. A. Gift. Of. God.
Right off the bat – right away, Jesus puts him in a position to give – to be the gift. Let’s go to your house, throw a party, crack open the good wine, GIVE us a good dinner and a good time. And Jesus goes…follows the tax collector, follows him right into his neighborhood, down his street, into his house.
You know…we talk a lot about following Jesus in the Church. We do. Obviously. But, maybe what we don’t talk about enough is how Jesus followed others. Followed them…wherever the road led…I mean just look here. Jesus follows Matthew to his home – the home of a tax collector – causing a bit of controversy – the Pharisees whispering to Jesus’ disciples, “Why does he eat with all these notorious sinners??”
And right in the middle of Jesus teaching them about mercy...There’s a wrap at the door and the leader of the synagogue bursts in begging Jesus to raise his little girl. What does Jesus do? He FOLLOWS. Jesus follows someone else through different streets, into a different neighborhood, into a different home…Jesus follows. And it’s only because he’s doing all this following that some woman, desperate for healing, takes the chance – has the guts – to grab the hem of his robe.
Yes, Jesus followed people into the blessed, awful, beautiful mess of their lives.
I love Jayber Crow. He’s the town barber in Wendell Berry’s fictional Kentucky township of Port William. He’s got a keen eye not just for the tight fade or taper cut, but for theological reflection. I love these words of his…
I have read the Gospels over the years (and) the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.
“Toward the membership of all that is here…”
Toward the membership of all that is here… Jesus followed.
Let me ask you a question.
Is the bigger problem today, a world that’s forgetting how to come to church or…is it a church that’s forgetting how to go into the world?
We spend a lot of time ringing our hands trying to figure out how to get people to follow us inside our churches so they can learn to love Jesus, when it seems Jesus spent most of his time out there following other people so they could learn to love one another.
And the Church – through the centuries – and especially in recent history…has made mistakes. Undeniably. It’s almost fashionable to talk about it now. The Church has hurt people, it’s been selfish, lost focus, mistreated, denied, rejected, it has consumed, it has TAKEN…
Which is why I can’t help but see something of the Church in the figure of the tax collector in Caravaggio’s painting. Partially hidden by the dark, slumped over, worn out, not even looking at Jesus…some might even say hopeless…a lost cause…
And still…Jesus’ hand reaches towards us out of the shadows.
And the scoffers stand around and say, “Really…you’re calling that to follow you…?!”
And called we are…
What shape might that calling take? So many of you do so much “out there” – it’s incredible. Off the top of my head…I’m thinking of our Beloved Community ministry, I’m thinking of Imagination Library, I’m thinking of Margie Netherton’s work with NAMI, I’m thinking of our deacons…so much good work. But I’m wondering about something else.
I’m wondering…what it might look like for all of us…to go together. I’m wondering what it might look like for us to take what we’ve experienced and learned in our Truckin’ Events…to another set of streets, in another neighborhood…I’m wondering if we could do that.
Not because we got it all together…not because we’re so great…not because we have the answers… Mainly because, we’re called…
not to just “follow Jesus” but, even more, to “follow like Jesus.”
To follow people into the blessed, awful, beautiful mess of their lives. To follow them toward the membership of all that is here.
Just a thought…just an idea…but it might be worth following.