Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Call of Matthew


The Gospel at Holy Mass today begins with the Call of Matthew and continues with the account of another of Our Lord's run-ins with the Pharisees. I am sure many priests preached about the second part of the Gospel passage but it struck me that we shouldn't miss the two short sentences that introduce it: as Jesus pases by he calls Matthew who gets up and follows him. It is a wonderful account of a vocation from the Gospel. Jesus calls. Matthew responds.
Matthew could be thought an unlikely character for the Lord to call. No one would have described Matthew as holy. Surely there were many other good and faithful Jews - why does the Lord call someone who would have been regarded as something of a dodgy character? He was certainly compromised by his dealing with the Roman authorities. I think that is a very good lesson for us. We shouldn't forget that St Mark says simply, 'Jesus called those he wanted and they came to him". There is no 'profile', no list of suitable characteristics. We are called simply because that is the will of Christ not because of our personal merits or gifts.
Matthew is collecting taxes when Jesus goes past. He is not in the Temple or sniffing about the synagogue. He's not a 'Holy Joe'. He is engaged in his 'professional work' and doing it with a professional spirit. If he hadn't been there at his desk he wouldn't have seen the Lord. It is unlikely that Jesus would have come back a second time. Had Matthew not been about his duties or had he wanted time to 'discern' the Lord would have gone on and that would have been the end of it. This is a challenge to us. What sort of student would Jesus call: the diligent one or the lazy one? Certainly the diligent one: the one who is doing what he is supposed to be doing.
I very much like Carravaggio's painting of the Call of Matthew. Jesus and Peter are passing by but you would hardly recognise which one is the Lord. Jesus is identified by a very slight, almost imperceptible halo. It is as if the artist is saying that the Lord passes by indistinguishable from everyone else. There is practically nothing to identify him and therefore the vast majority of people do not recognise him. Indeed behind Matthew are two of his colleagues so taken up with the day's gathering that they don't notice the presence of these two strangers at all.
Christ points to Matthew with a gesture reminiscent of the famous creative Hand of God in the Sistine Chapel. The artist is telling us that it is God who gives the vocation not man who chooses it. That Call is written into Creation, our vocation is from eternity. To ignore our vocation is a cosmic tragedy! The task we all have is to recognise the Call and to respond.
That response does not necessarily come easily. Although Matthew follows the Lord there is nevertheless a moment of crisis and decision. Carravaggio's Matthew points to himself with one hand - "Me?" - while the other hand is stretched over the pile of money. How often an attachment to earthly treasure can lead us to forsake the only true Treasure of accompanying the Messiah! It is not only the internal attachment to material things that Matthew has to break free from. While some of his friends don't notice the drama there are two more between Matthew and the Messiah. One is leaning on Matthew's shoulder, the other leans forward - interested but without commitment - Matthew will have to overcome the opposition of his friends who would hold him back, who wouldn't understand the 'madness' of leaving everything to be with Jesus. Again, how often is that repeated today when a young person tells parents or friends that they wish to follow the Lord!
There is one final aspect of the painting we shouldn't miss. The light in the painting doesn't emanate from Jesus. It comes from outside and from above: Jesus is calling Matthew out from the shadows into the light. He may come in an unspectacular way but what he offers is not the fetid atmosphere of a darkened room. It is the freedom, joy and pure air of God's life and love.
Matthew understood all this in an instant. He got up and followed the Lord.

What will you do?

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