Called by Jesus

Called by Jesus

Homily for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

June 11, 2023

Called by Jesus

Homily for June 11, 2023
Second Sunday After Pentecost
Matthew 9:9–13, 18–26

Caravaggio completed his painting “The Call of St. Matthew” (shown on the front cover of today’s order of service) in 1600.  It is a dynamic and stunning work, showcasing Caravaggio’s dramatic “chiaroscuro” style of light and shadow.  It hangs in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in the center of Rome.

Though there are other figures in the painting (to whom we will return shortly), the main figures in Caravaggio’s painting are Jesus and Matthew.  In addition to the wisp of a halo over his head, of Jesus—who is off to the right, in the shadows—we see most prominently his face and his hand.  Notice how Jesus faces Matthew.  Jesus’ invitation is personal, to Matthew; with Matthew Jesus seeks a face-to-face, personal relationship.  Notice how Jesus’ hand is relaxed—languid, even.  Jesus’ invitation to Matthew is not forceful or demanding, but (to paraphrase from Matthew’s own Gospel), the yoke Jesus’ invites Matthew to carry is easy, and the burden he asks Matthew to bear is light (see 11:28–30).  Though Jesus’ hand makes it clear that it is Matthew whom he calls, Jesus’ hand likewise makes it clear that Jesus invites and does not demand that Matthew follow.  Though Jesus’ face and hand are most prominent, notice, too, in the bottom right corner, in the shadows and partially obscured by the figure of Peter, Jesus’ feet.  Jesus’ feet are twisted against the direction he faces, heading away and (presumably) out the door.  Jesus’ feet lend urgency to his calling.  As if Jesus is saying to Matthew, “I have work to do and must be on my way.  If you want to follow me, now is the time.”

As we did with Jesus, I want to focus on Matthew’s face, hands and feet.  Matthew is the bearded one on whom the light coming in through the window rests.  Matthew’s face looks directly at Jesus.  Matthew sees Jesus and Matthew knows that it is he himself whom Jesus calls.  But Matthew’s hands attempt to deflect.  The one hand points, either at himself or at his neighbor (we can’t be sure), as if to say, “Surely, you can’t mean me, Lord; perhaps you mean the fellow next to me.”  And his other hand yet holds onto the money on the table.  But even though Matthew attempts to deflect with his hands, and even though his torso shrinks back away from Jesus, yet Matthew’s feet suggest he wants to follow.  Matthew’s knees point toward Jesus, and his one leg especially is bent, flexed (see the muscles), ready to rise up and follow.  Caravaggio beautifully captures the moment of Matthew’s indecision—and then decision—to respond to Jesus’ invitation.

Returning to the others in the painting…. Notice how Caravaggio creates a rather “shady” scene consistent with today’s Gospel lesson that is set among “tax collectors and sinners.”  There is a room with much shadow and darkness, perhaps a tavern.  There are opulently-dressed figures with feathers, furs and silks, suggesting great wealth (in contrast to the simple garments of Peter and Christ).  See how the figure at the center is armed and—perhaps startled by Jesus’ entry—seems to reach for his sword.  And notice too, the two men at the left who are so focused on the coins on the table that they are oblivious to the presence of Christ.  To call Matthew, Jesus enters a “shady,” “fallen” place of shadows, greed and violence.

Caravaggio’s painting captures in a nutshell something of what it is like when Jesus calls us to follow him.  For example, Jesus is not afraid to enter our places of shadows and darkness; he calls us from the places in which our lives may be marked by things “fallen.”  As he did Matthew, Jesus calls us personally—the kind of relationship Jesus wants with us is personal, intimate and face-to-face.  Just as Jesus’ call to Matthew was not forceful, so does Jesus only ever invite us; Jesus never demands that we follow him.  As for our response, are we not often like Matthew, at once drawn to Jesus yet wanting to deflect, our “inner members” [Rom 7:21–23] marked by indecision, perhaps counting the cost of what it would be like to truly and whole-heartedly follow Jesus?  And (recalling in the painting Jesus’ feet turned toward the door) there is an urgency in Jesus call to us—as in the time of Matthew, Jesus has work to do, and our window to follow him is now, today, in the present moment.

I have never regretted those times in which I followed Jesus more closely.  But I have regretted those times in which I failed to rise up from the table, as it were, in which I insisted on clinging to my “coins,” and when I missed the opportunity to follow and serve more closely.  And I know that I am not along in being moved by, and having to reckon with, this scene, this dynamic, from today’s Gospel that Caravaggio so beautifully paints.  Even the Pope sees himself in this painting.  For shortly after his election, in a 2013 interview, the Pope said of this painting,

That finger of Jesus pointing at Matthew, that’s me.  I feel like him, like Matthew… It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me.  He holds on to his money as if to say, “No, not me…”

“Here,” gestured the Pope, pointing to Matthew, “this is me: a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.”

I hope that after we leave here today, we retain an awareness that “Here, this is me,” that “Jesus is calling me, facing me (as he did Matthew), personally inviting me—inviting and in no way demanding—that I follow him more closely.  Though I may be, yet he is not put off by my shadows, by my inner ‘tables’ around which my fallen selves gather, by those inner ‘coins’ to which I still might cling.  Rather,  he enters my shadows boldly and beckons to me; he chooses me.  And neither is he deterred by my pointing (whether to myself or others), when I seem to  say, ‘No, not me.’”  For Jesus knows our hearts, how divided and indecisive we can be; he can see how our torso leans away even as our feet make as to follow.  He is clear that he has “come not to call the righteous but sinners,” and that “Those who are well have no need of a Physician, but those who are sick.”  And so he calls us and will continue to call.  I hope that—seeing that his face is looking at us, seeing that his hand is choosing us—that we also see his feet leading us.  So that we today might rise up and follow, and not miss out on the joy and peace that Jesus offers us today.

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