Trinity 1: Hos. 5. 15-6. 6; Rms. 4. 13-end; Mt. 9. 9-13; 18-26
Theme: True Conversion
One of the great things to do in Rome is to go around the churches. There are so many with such beautiful art and architecture that you could literally spend a life time doing this and not finish visiting all that there is to see.
One of my favourites is San Luigi dei Francesi, just around the corner from Piazza Navona, in Rome. This church has three beautiful Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) paintings one of which depicts the theme of our Gospel for today, the conversion or calling of St Matthew (Vocazione di San Matteo). All three of the Caravaggio’s are in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi and on the left wall of the Chapel is my favourite of the three: the calling of St Matthew, painted around 1600. Just take a moment to look at this beautiful picture and allow it to speak to you.
The first thing you may notice is the way the light is shining in the scene and creating the contrast between light and dark, an effect, known as ‘Chiaroscuro’, which the artist Caravaggio uses a lot in his paintings to provide a clear focus to what is happening. The light in the painting is flooding in over the head of Jesus who has entered the tax office and singles out the old man with the beard who also points his own finger at himself as if to say, do you mean me?
I love this painting, because I think Caravaggio really gets to the heart of the Gospel meaning of conversion in it by a number of subtle effects which can easily go unnoticed if you are not attentive to them and their meaning.
Clearly the light is easy to spot. It portrays the vocation, the calling of Matthew as a calling out of darkness into the light, God’s light within which all things look different; bright and clear.
The second thing to notice is the hand of Jesus. Just look at Jesus’s finger pointing at Matthew. What does it remind you of? Yes, I am sure you have guessed it, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (Creazione di Adamo) which adorns the ceiling of the Sistine chapel in the Vatican. The finger of God the Father pointing at Adam in Michelangelo’s ceiling fresco is reproduced by Caravaggio in his depiction of the calling of St Matthew, created for the French Church in Rome.
Using this allusion to the finger of God the Father, Caravaggio depicts the close connection that there is between a calling from God, a vocation, and becoming a new person. Jesus’s calling of the tax collector, Matthew, is being depicted as an event of creation. A new creation of Matthew is happening here as Jesus calls him out of the darkness of sin into the light of God’s grace. This transformation through being called by God is what we mean by a true conversion of heart. It is as if the heart now hears another voice calling it and it just has to follow it. It hears another drum beat, you might say.
A third detail in the picture is also important to notice. The old man, Matthew, or Levi as he is called by St Mark and St Luke, looks rather surprised to be called by Jesus. His finger pointing at himself, seems to say to us, do you really mean me? This look of surprise on the face of Matthew brings out an important point about the Gospel story of the call of St Matthew. As a tax collector, he would have been very surprised to have been called by Jesus, because tax collectors were collaborators with the Roman imperial authorities. They were thus viewed by other Jews as disloyal. They often made their money by extorting more than was legally due in taxes from the people, and so were considered to be exploitative. In a word, the Jews considered tax collectors to be sinners who could not be trusted and who went against everything that their religion professed. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Matthew is flummoxed by the entry of Jesus into the tax office and his calling by this holy man to follow him.
But, as Jesus says to the Pharisees, it is precisely to such people as Matthew that his mission is oriented. Jesus comes to call tax collectors and sinners to true repentance, to a true conversion of heart: “I came to call not the upright, but sinners.”
I am sure Caravaggio saw quite a bit of himself in this depiction of Matthew. He was quite a lad in his time and his own experience of faith is one which would have known the Chiaroscuro-like contrasts between light and darkness, between grace and sin in his own life.
A final detail that we might single out is the clothing. Look at the clothing of Jesus and Peter and that of Matthew. Jesus and Peter are dressed in the ancient cloaks of the Roman times, whilst Matthew and the other tax collectors are dressed in the contemporary dress of the time. Caravaggio is expressing here the meeting of two different worlds in the moment of conversion, in the act of conversion. The divine transcendent world of God and the earthly temporal world of the tax collectors. A true conversion puts these two worlds in contact and a new orientation in life begins. There is no going back once a person has caught a glimpse of this other reality, you might say that a true conversion has a ratchet effect to it; one can’t really go back to the person that one was, because a new person has come into being and the old ways no long taste the same as they did to the old person that one was.
This theme of true conversion also runs through our first reading from the prophet Hosea. The false conversions of Ephraim and Judah, are nothing more than that, only lip service. Outwardly, they are practicing the religion of Israel, but inwardly, their hearts have not really turned away from their idolatrous ways, And, because of this, God will judge them because of the contract that he has made with them and binds God to act justly to Israel. But God makes it clear to them that what God wants is not to punish the people of Israel, but rather that they offer him “steadfast love and not (idolatrous) sacrifices”. It is “the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings” that God truly desires in a true conversion.
For both Caravaggio’s depiction of the calling of Matthew and Hosea’s account of the prophecies of the judgment of God on Israel, the central message is that true repentance, true conversion, requires us to become a new person. It requires us to be called anew into being by God, and to leave our former ways, tax collecting for Matthew and idolatry for the Israelites, behind.
What is God calling us to leave behind, to let go of, so that we can be called into being a new person? Each and every one of us needs to answer this question for ourselves. The call of God to each and every one of us is personal, and woven into the twists and turns of our own personal biographies.
Yet, as well as this personal call, we are also called as a community by God, as Hosea depicts the contract or covenant made between God and Israel in his prophetic writings of the 8th Century BC. And, as a community here on the Costa del Sol, it is good for us to ask ourselves as a church community, what are we being called to by God?
Perhaps, a little like Matthew, in Caravaggio’s depiction, we may think, “you can’t really mean us, do you?”. We are too old, too few, too tired, too………But we should be assured that God is calling us as community to a true conversion of heart; to become a new community on the Costa del Sol, so that we can follow the Lord Jesus as he walks with us through the Málaga and Cádiz provinces.
So, let us pray that we may be ever more attentive to the still small voice of the Lord who whispers into our hearts and says, “Follow me”.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.