Miraculous call interrupts daily routine

Stephen Adam, 24 September 2017

Proverbs 3: 13–18; Matthew 9: 9–13

In the Church’s calendar, last Thursday was the Feast of St Matthew, and today we are celebrating this as our patronal festival. For one of our pre-eminent apostles, surprisingly little is known about Matthew. The story of his response to Jesus’ call appears as well in the gospels of Mark and Luke, where he is referred to as Levi; the reason for the change of name is unclear and, other than a fleeting reference in the next chapter, no more is heard of Matthew.

He has marched off into the mists of history, a fragmentary and elusive character, leaving us this great gift of the gospel bearing his name – although it seems unlikely that the apostle himself wrote the gospel, as his name was only linked to the text in the second century, around a hundred years after it was written.

So today, as we commemorate Matthew, apostle, evangelist and tax collector, what can we learn from his call? We have only these few scant verses from our reading today, and so to help us engage imaginatively with this story I’d like to reflect with you for a few moments on one of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings, The Calling of St Matthew, which hangs in the Contarelli Chapel in Rome. (The reproduction here can’t do it justice; the painting is huge – something like 10½ by 11 feet!)

Matthew is a despised tax collector – one of those people who colludes with the Roman occupying authorities, doing a lot of their dirty work – quislings, if you like. And to make it worse, the tax collectors would add an extra tax for themselves; they were embezzlers and swindlers.

Caravaggio depicts Matthew in a dark, gloomy room, sitting round a table with four young, foppishly dressed friends, perhaps accomplices, hovering like vultures over the coins. Caravaggio uses contemporary fashion to better communicate the scene to his sixteenth-century audience.

Christ takes the initiative. With his arm he points a beam of light into this dark scene. It’s a call and an invitation. There’s puzzlement – ‘Who, me?’ you can imagine Matthew saying. It’s a collision of two worlds, the call of faith interrupting the mundane and sordid, a moment when the daily routine is interrupted by the miraculous.

Jesus’ bare feet, perhaps symbolising holiness, contrast with the dark, brooding scene round the table, and as Jesus points so Matthew keeps his right hand on the coins he is busy counting. The painting captures the split second when Christ’s summons hangs in the air, when Matthew is caught shocked and in a moment of suspended indecision, his uncertainty juxtaposed with the monumental certainty of Christ’s invitation.

We know what happens next, as the gospel text focuses on the immediacy of Matthew’s response, as ‘he got up and followed him’.

Caravaggio’s audience would have been quick to spot the similarity of the gesture of Jesus as he points to Matthew, and the gesture of God as he awakens Adam, in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco.

This is a new beginning, new life for Matthew, a moment of resurrection as he detaches himself from a sinful situation and makes a conscious attachment to a new way of life in communion with Jesus. Matthew is a pretty unlikely candidate to be an apostle, but Jesus could see beyond what he was to what he could be. It’s an invitation to ordinary people, one that Matthew cannot refuse. And there’s a lesson here for us too, perhaps – that Jesus does not go about judging people by their outward appearances.

Pope Francis has said that he often went into this chapel as a young man and, referring to Christ’s outstretched arm and Matthew’s response, Francis said, ‘This is me, a sinner, on whom the Lord has turned his gaze’. And Pope Francis has reflected on how the painting is all about God giving second chances: ‘The important thing is to let your self be loved by him … Real love is opening yourselves to the love that wants to come to you, which causes surprise in you. God is a God of surprises.’

This gospel story celebrates God’s mercy. We are conditioned to think of good things having to be earned or deserved, but that’s not God’s way or how he acts. The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has written, ‘God does not love you because you are good, but God loves you because God is good’. And so when Matthew is called, there is no judgement or examination, no question of Matthew having first to change his spots; it’s a simple invitation to which he responds.

We are conditioned to think of good things having to be earned or deserved, but that’s not God’s way.

And then note what happens next. Jesus does what he does throughout the gospel: with his disciples he sits down and eats with the tax collectors and sinners, accepting and opening himself to their hospitality. He is not ashamed to be in their company or to identify himself with them – people who are outcasts and ostracised, at the margins of respectable society.

And of course the irony is that it is the religious people – the Pharisees, the (self-) righteous – who cannot see this mercy in action, and who complain.

Jesus quotes that well known verse from the prophet Hosea: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’. This word we translate from the Hebrew of the Old Testament as ‘mercy’ is difficult to pin down, and yet it lies at the heart of the Jewish understanding of God – it’s about loving kindness, faithfulness, loyalty, steadfast love. It reflects an understanding of God as love in action, creative, always taking the initiative, always seeking out and never letting go. As Psalm 89: 2 proclaims triumphantly:

I declare that your steadfast love is established for ever
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.

That love which acts without prior cause to do so is at the heart of God’s relationship with us. And it’s a challenge and a warning for us not to get into some sort of holy huddle, a church which puts up barriers or excludes.

Rather, we are called to seek to model the acceptance that Jesus showed Matthew by continuing to strive to be a welcoming and accepting church, without being judgemental – living up to our strapline, ‘We are pilgrims on a journey, come and join us’. It’s about recognising our common humanity: the fact that we all carry wounds of one sort or another, that we’re all flawed, but we all find acceptance here.

We’re all flawed, but we all find acceptance here.

In responding to the generosity of God revealed in Jesus Christ, Matthew had discovered true wealth, something that gave fresh meaning and purpose to his life – or true wisdom, as our first reading from Proverbs (3: 13–14) puts it:

Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.

Our patron saint, Matthew, remains a rather elusive character. Other than his call by Jesus we know little for sure about him as a person. We don’t know what happened to him afterwards, and he has disappeared into the mists of time. He has, though, left us this great gift of the gospel bearing his name. And today we might be particularly encouraged by calling to mind the final words of his gospel –these are the words of the risen Jesus to his disciples as he appears to them after the resurrection – ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’.

May we, in our pilgrimage through this life, find alongside us the Christ of the journey as the guarantee of that pilgrimage. Amen.