“Hey, you. Come with me.”
This is a shady scene. Money on the table, a dimly lit room, armed men looking nervous. Is it the backroom of some seedy tavern or the basement of a gangster? And what’s with all the pointing?
When I was in Rome this past June, I had the joy of meeting up with my sister. She had already been there for a week, so she scouted out some sites to see. One day, she took me to a French church (San Luigi dei Francesi) and as soon as the doors opened, she grabbed my hand and her and I (and a group of about 20 other tourists) hurried to the farthest left corner of the church to the Contarelli Chapel. There, much to my delight, hung this huge painting by Caravaggio, one of my favorite artists. It is called, “The Calling of St. Matthew.”
As the name suggests, this painting depicts the point of time when Christ calls Matthew to follow him. The people sitting around the table are obviously tax collectors—not very popular folk in those days because they were often less than honest. Jesus is on the right, behind Peter. Jesus has his hand up, pointing to an astonished Matthew, who is illuminated by the ray of sun coming through the window. It is almost as if Jesus is saying, “Hey you, come with me.” Most art critics agree that Matthew is the bearded man in the black tunic, pointing to himself in astonishment, with an expression that reads: “Who, me!?”
After all, Matthew has been caught in a greedy moment. He and his co-workers, dressed in their finery and hovering like vultures over money in a dark room, have been busted. This makes Jesus’ choice and Matthew’s conversion all the more unlikely and dramatic.
I am compelled to ask, “What if Jesus had just caught me in a greedy moment?” I have more of them than I like to admit. What if he walked in on me in Eddie Bauer with my credit card out, buying another pair of jeans? And in that greedy moment, he says to me, “I want you”? What if he showed up just as I passed by a hungry person on the street and said, “You, come with me”? Wait, what!? Me? Surely you mean someone else.
Caravaggio doesn’t show Christ in some far-off heaven. He doesn’t show Christ in some plasticized environment. This is what Christ looks like in a dimly lit backroom tavern, surrounded by sinners caught in the act. This is where Christ meets us. We are caught hovering like vultures over things we covet, like our reputation or our possessions. We are caught hovering like vultures over things we’d rather keep hidden, like our shame or our sin.
Being Human connection: Jesus lifts his hand towards us, looks us in the eye, and says, “You. I call you. I’ve seen you at your worst, but I’m not phased. Come on. Let’s go. We’ve got work to do.” What will our response be?
“Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him, ‘Follow me,’ and Matthew rose and followed him.” -Matthew 9:9
Some interesting fact about this work of art:
This painting is one of three by Caravaggio that hang in this chapel nook and have to do with the St. Matthew. The chapel was named after Cardinal Matteo (Matthew) Contarelli and he wanted to deck the place out with tributes to the saint for whom he was named.
It turns out Caravaggio wasn’t the Cardinal Matthew’s first choice. The popular painter Cavaliere d’Arpino was originally hired to do the three works but became overbooked, gave up the job and paved the way for Caravaggio’s most admired works, giving Caravaggio his big break.
Art historians have suggested that Jesus’s pointing hand was intentionally modeled after Adam’s hand (the one on the left) from “The Creation of Man” section of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. Jesus is considered the second Adam. Adam got us into the bondage of sin; Christ got us out of it. One art critic said, “This interpretation connects the pieces as bookends, with Adam being the reason mankind needed saving by Christ.”
We can’t see Jesus’ feet well, but while his torso and head are pointed in toward the room, his feet point right, toward the suggested door. Jesus is not waiting for Matthew. The man has been chosen, and the position of Christ’s feet show it’s time to go.
The painting scored headlines in early 2015 when Pope Francis declared, “If you have time, go see the picture that Caravaggio painted of this scene.” He went on to suggest the centuries-old piece is about how God gives second chances.
Featured image: Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1559-1600