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.”
There is a well-known painting of the calling of St. Matthew in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, painted by the great Caravaggio. I often used to stop through to see it while I was studying abroad, since it was just around the corner from my school. It sits in a shadowy corner of the church, but when a tourist drops coins into a slot, a light shines upon it for a few minutes. Once it is illuminated, you can see that the painting itself is a stark contrast of light and shadow—a masterpiece of chiaroscuro.
Matthew is sitting at a table with his fellow tax collectors, counting money. Jesus, standing at the opposite end of the table, is pointing at Matthew, while Matthew and his companions seem to be caught in utter surprise. One man also points at Matthew in his bewilderment, as if to say, “Who, him? Really?” They are sitting in the shadows, but their faces are illuminated with a clear, brilliant light, coming from Jesus’s direction. And Matthew hangs his head as if caught red-handed, exposed in his sin.
Caravaggio sought to capture this singular, crucial moment, the turning point of Matthew’s whole life. We see Jesus’s mercy, bringing Matthew out of the darkness and into the light, but we also see the stark vulnerability and fear which that light reveals. In this pivotal moment, Matthew had a choice. He could have recoiled and crawled back into the shadows, but he didn’t. Terrifying as it was to leave everything behind and follow this mysterious stranger, he knew that he was not created to lurk in the shadows of a life of corruption and greed. The light of Jesus’s presence made him aware of a yearning within himself for goodness and truth, a long-neglected thirst for transcendent love. He knew that the life he was leading could not quench that thirst but would only deepen it. And so he stood, left everything behind, followed Jesus into the light, and never looked back.
St. Matthew, when we are tempted to seek fulfillment in things other than God and to veil our actions in secrecy, shine a light into our hearts, that we may see clearly the truth of our condition and understand who we were created to be. Give us the courage to loosen our grip on everything that distracts us from our ultimate purpose as children of God, and give us trust in His great mercy, that we may confidently believe that He seeks to heal and restore us, not to condemn us. And, like you, may we follow Him without looking back, telling the story of His merciful love for us all our days.
Image: Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew / PD-US