Monday, 21 September 2009

The Calling of St. Matthew

The calling of St. Matthew is one of my favourite scenes from the Bible, and the painting above by Carravaggio is one of my favourite paintings. I can't remember when I first discovered this masterpiece, but it is surely one of the most dramatic depictions of this scene ever painted. The light comes in the room at such an angle that it helps to form a triangle or an arrow-head pointing at Matthew. The hand of Christ is the focul point of the painting and the fall of the light leads the eye to Matthew's hand which is pointing to his breast as if saying, "Me?" The hand of Christ is held out without effort and reminds us of the hand of God the Father in the other Michelangelo's painting of the creation of Adam. It is a superb painting, yet it does not entirely fit in with my own approach to the Gospel story.
Levi was an outcast. As a tax-collector he was performing a task which made him defiled in the eyes of many of his fellow Jews. It is not surprising that the guests at his house were other tax-collectors and other "public sinners", including prostitutes. The alienated often find friends amongst their own kind, and sometimes these friendships can be healing because the Mercy of God is not shut out by those who are seeking redemption and liberation.
I like to think of Matthew struggling within himself and perhaps praying for some kind of release, some kind of redemption. Perhaps it was not so much a struggle as a sense of "deadness" which wearied him and made him restless at the same time - a guilty conscience perhaps, but coupled with a temptation to despair. This is probably just me being dramatic, but whatever was going through his mind, the coming of Christ was like the breaking down of a wall. Perhaps it had already been weakened by his or others' prayers, but it was a break none the less, and a dramatic one. No wonder we are told that he got up and followed Jesus, and no wonder he rejoiced with his friends, hoping that some of them might find the same release. Being set free Mattew immediately tried to share that freedom with others.

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